By now, the rhythms of the superhero movie are as familiar to filmgoers as the rhythms of the western or the war movie or the romantic comedy. There’s a few basic shapes, and 95% of everything in the genre fits into one of those shapes. It seems like filmgoers don’t mind, either, because they continually go see the films without major complaint.
“The Green Hornet” seems determined to do things a little different, and even within that determination, there are models for this. We’ve seen the blowhard hero who is a front for the truly heroic sidekick before. I really like “Without A Clue,” where Michael Caine plays a truly lunkheaded Sherlock Holmes with a quietly brilliant Ben Kingsley as Watson by his side. In this variation, Seth Rogen is Britt Reid, a layabout no-good son to James Reid (Tom Wilkinson), a newspaper magnate with a fierce sense of social conscience. When James Reid is killed, Britt has to decide how to proceed with his life. It’s not until he meets Kato (Jay Chou), a mysterious employee of his father’s, that he gets the idea that he can do some good as a masked vigilante.
It’s familiar ground, but the details here make the difference, and the script by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg is probably the most under-a-microscope they’ve ever been during the development process. This isn’t the same sort of shaggy personal story as “Superbad” or “Pineapple Express,” and for a studio, a superhero movie is a specific kind of investment. Even so, there’s a lot about this film that just plain thumbs its nose at business as usual while still taking the genre seriously. This is a comedy, certainly, but it’s not absurd to the point that the heroics don’t matter.
Part of getting a film like this correct is coming up with a villain that’s worthwhile, and Christoph Waltz plays Chudnofsky, a crime lord having a midlife crisis. He’s concerned that people aren’t scared of him and that he’s been unsuccessful at creating a terrifying image for himself. He becomes preoccupied with the way people think of him, and that drive is given a very grounded sense of reality by Waltz. It’s a preposterous motivation, but Waltz makes you believe that it is urgent to Chudnofsky, and that he’s dangerous because of it.
The whole film hinges on whether or not you buy the relationship between Britt and Kato, and Rogen and Chou make a really interesting team. Rogen’s non-stop verbal, of course, and Chou is so uncomfortable in English that his performance leans way to the physical end of things. The two of them complement each other’s strengths, and that middle ground where they relate becomes very funny as a result. Chou is very charismatic, and Rogen makes a credible action co-lead here. They look like they’re having fun together, and the film makes a case for just how much of a kick it would be to have that car and those clothes and that sort of night out on the town. Gondry makes it a persuasive fantasy, and it’s better for it.
Michel Gondry’s voice is absolutely present in the film, although this could be called the most conventional thing he’s ever made. His touch is most evident in the action scenes and the Kato-vision, but I think the film’s also willing to digress in a way that most superhero films aren’t. The way Britt first becomes aware of Kato’s existence, for example, is because his morning coffee is suddenly different than it used to be, and his attempts to discover why lead him to Kato. The way Gondry handles things as routine as montage are also informed by his point-of-view, and the entire film has a great energy to it.
There are some missteps. I am still trying to figure out why Cameron Diaz is in the film at all. The film gains absolutely nothing from the presence of Lenore Case, and Diaz is fine in the role, but not particularly memorable. It’s just a miscalculation, and anything she does in the film could have been done better by Edward James Olmos as Axford, the paper’s editor. Instead, Olmos is stuck in the background and Diaz just stands around doing not much. Every time the film tries to service her character, it grinds to a halt. There’s also an extended stretch at the end of act two where Kato and the Green Hornet aren’t getting along that seems to be more a case of plot mechanics than anything else.
Even so, when the film is working, it’s enormously fun, and overall, it’s a pleasant surprise. It is confident, sly, silly, thrilling, and a nice tribute to the genre and the character both. It’s the sort of film that feels like they really only had the thing figured out once they’d put it all together, and in the end, they made the film they set out to make. My guess is if you bring Gondry and Rogen and Goldberg back for another film, they’d make something even better. I hope “The Green Hornet” does well enough for them to get that chance, because there’s a lot to like here.
“The Green Hornet” opens Friday, January 14th.