Ok, confession time .... the only thing I knew about the Green Hornet before watching this film and researching the figure was that it was a 1960’s TV show and was Bruce Lee’s first English speaking part that he won when, during his screen test, he destroyed the set. In that version Lee played Kato, the Hornet’s aide, while Van Williams donned the long green coat and mask as the titular character, who, like all superheroes had a day time job/name as Britt Reid a newspaper publisher and owner of The Daily Sentinel, while at night was out fighting villains. The show was based upon the 1930’s radio serial of the same name, which had an unlikely twist with regard its protagonist; he posed as a villain and, indeed, was outlawed as one of his city's biggest criminals. This allowed him to breeze quite happily into unsuspecting racketeers/outlaws/criminals/hoodlums headquarters and shake them down for information, or demand a cut of their profits, and in doing so, usually provoked them into attacking him (to remove this potential competitor) and thus giving him free reign to defeat and leave them for the police - all the while never raising the suspicion as to his actual motives. This is in stark contrast to other ‘super heroes’ most notably Batman, who was undeniably good despite working outside the law. Not a particularly well known character to be fair, but with a recent upsurge in his comic book incarnation, it was not long before Hollywood came knocking, although its production has gone through a number of twists and turns before tonight’s presentation was ready to be unveiled – and this may go some way to explaining why the film, whilst being quite spectacular and containing some memorable moments, is rather lacklustre and convoluted.
Production of the film started way back in 1992 when the rights were bought and sold and scripts were being mooted and directors and actors were being considered for the part. This continued for years with stars like George Clooney and Jet Li at one time being attached. Perhaps the biggest step forward came some twelve years later when flavour of the month Kevin Smith was signed to draft a script and direct; although this was eventually to come to nothing, vestiges of this draft still remain, although most of it went on to become one of the best selling comic book stories for the Hornet and, in large part, contributed to the continued interest in producing this film. The next significant step came in 2007 when Seth Rogen was signed to star and write the film along with his long term collaborator Evan Goldberg, and whilst what we eventually see is a result of that collaboration there was one more twist – a year later it was announced that Stephen Chow (of Shaolin Soccer fame) was to not only star as Kato but also direct, and I can’t help but wonder what the results would have been had he been able to do it – I’ve long been a fan of his work. Directing duties eventually fell to Michel Gondry, who, amazingly, had been attached some thirteen years before! Successive push backs to the release date to enable the 2D to 3D conversion further slowed production, but eventually it all came together and the Green Hornet was ready to ride – was it all worth the effort?
As is normally the case with ‘new’ superhero films, we start at the beginning, the how and why our protagonist donned his mask to do what he does. The film opens with hugely successful newspaper mogul James Reid berating his son, Britt, then around eight years old, for fighting at school, despite Britt’s attempts at saying he was only defending a girl against bullies. James is particularly stern with his boy (“Trying is no good if you don’t succeed”) even taking his favourite toy and destroying it to get his point across. The film lingers on this point and returns to it later as we are meant to believe that this is the defining moment to the Hornet’s genesis. Now, as significant story beginnings go, this has to be one to the worst I have ever seen – a family argument? If this was the case I should be a superhero too! So fast forward a few years and Britt has become a drunken, womanising, spoilt brat, much to the eternal disappointment of his father, but on this particular morning poor James is killed by an allergic reaction to a bee sting. Fed up of the sycophants at the funeral and with no interest in running the family newspaper, The Daily Sentinel, Britt sacks all his father’s household staff and retreats into his room only to discover that his coffee the following morning is awful and demands to know why. Turns out the coffee he likes is made by a faithful employee called Kato, who not only built his own coffee machine, but is a genius with regard to building anything, and when Britt calls him back the two bond over a few drinks and a slagging match against James. That night, during a prank, the pair rescue a couple who are being mugged, it is at this point we see Kato’s amazing martial arts skill, as he wades through the attackers as if they are not even there. Riding high on this event, the idea for the helping the helpless is born, but Britt hits upon an unusual idea – since, in the comic books and film, superheroes are always good, Britt thinks they should act as criminals to disguise their true motivations and to raise their profile uses his influence at the newspaper to bolster this idea; it is at this meeting that the name The Green Hornet (not the Green Bee!) is first used.
Kato and the Hornet, or Britt, are played by Jay Chou and Seth Rogen respectively. Chou won the part late in the day, after Stephen Chow pulled out, and whilst his starring roles in Initial D and the internationally acclaimed Curse of the Golden Flower, were known his solo music career was not, this meant that on filming breaks, even over weekends, Chou would fly to China to perform concerts, all the while learning how to pronounce his English lines! He plays the part with typical aloofness which comes across as superiority, which is absolutely what the part, as written, demanded – Kato is the brains and the brawn in a reversal of ‘hero/sidekick’ partnership. His range is not particularly wide, but then it doesn’t have to be, and I think he’s one of the best parts of the film. Rogen, on the other hand, is woefully miscast as the Hornet, not only as the actor to bring the character to life, but also as the character himself. He plays him similar to every other character in his repertoire; and in this film, that simply does not work. Now, I’m the first to admit that I don’t know much about the original Hornet, but I like to think I know a thing or two about heroes and how they should be portrayed, and as a bumbling, idiotic, boorish, spiteful and childish moron, is as wide of the mark as you can get. This is compounded by there being no significant event to trigger the Hornet’s arrival – it is played out like an idea that Britt pulled out of the air. But the biggest flaw is that he is thoroughly unlikeable as a person, as an idea and as a hero. He brings nothing to partnership except strife. Whilst the initial idea was to turn convention on its head and have a ‘buddy movie’ of the ‘Lethal Weapon’ variety what we’ve ended up with is lame and poorly written characters that simply go not gel; when they go through their various permutations, i.e. power struggle, forced love triangle, break up and eventual reconciliation, nothing matters as we cannot and do not feel for the characters or their plight – without that emotional involvement there is no reason to become attached and therefore we simply do not care. Even when they are buried alive, or in a no win situation, we are just not bothered if the make it out alive.
It is often said that a hero is only as good as his villain, and through the years there have been some magnificent villains, therefore one saving grace could be the Hornet’s nemesis a Russian mobster called Benjamin Chudnofsky, played, in the main, with effortless charm by Christoph Waltz still riding high from his magnificent turn in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Unfortunately he is never allowed to play it straight, I understand he would want to distance himself from Col. Hans Landa, however, Chudnofsky needed that menace and that threat because without it there is no character – how can a lead villain hope to succeed if he is not frightening? His introduction is supposed to instil the idea that this is an unstoppable criminal, the ‘kingpin’ of the underworld, under whom all other nefarious dealings take place – but again, trying to play against type, the writers instead give us an uncertain, unconfident and unconvincing man, that while he asserts his position, is not frightening. This is built upon in successive scenes culminating in his changing his name to Bloodnofsky in an attempt at becoming notorious and scary to his underlings and enemies; they may be scared, but we’re not.
Other notable parts went to the always reliable Tom Wilkinson, who puts in a short, but nevertheless, great turn as James Reid, the stern father whose own morals are actually the backbone of the story, even if it takes Britt the length of the picture to realise it – perhaps the best twist of the film. Cameron Diaz turns up as Lenore Case, Britt’s secretary and the cause of the jealousy and break up of our crime fighting team, although isn’t she getting on a bit to be seen as the pure sex symbol? Luckily, in a rare moment of serendipity, Diaz’s age proved to be a bonus as she was able to be the unwitting part of the brains behind the Hornet’s escapades, as she has a degree in criminology and she ‘tells’ Britt how to act and what to do without knowing it. Only someone of an age could have pulled this off, a younger actress would have been less convincing, even if she was right for the ‘sex symbol’ part. And, in tradition with the TV show, Case ‘discovers’ the Hornet’s identity and thus works with them to further his ‘career’ but keep the secret hidden. Finally I must mention Edward James Olmos as James’ editor in chief, simply because he is just so damn cool.
Then we come to the script which is unnecessarily convoluted and full of ideas that don’t mesh to make a decent whole – the whole Kato/Britt jealousy thing was completely unnecessary, the Chudnofsky/ Bloodnofsky mess was a waste of screen time, both elements diluting what could have been a simple (anti)hero vs. villain with a couple of nice twists. And had the script played it straight instead of turning in some terribly lame comedic moments, or stretching the suspension of disbelief to its absolute limits, there might have been something to be had. In an insane turnabout of fortunes the Batman and Green Hornet TV shows played it camp and straight respectively, but the films are opposite; I don’t have to tell you that Batman Begins is a far, far superior film by doing the complete opposite to the Hornet – the scriptwriters, in purposely trying to do something different, have completely missed the mark and probably sealed the fate for the Hornet, which I honestly view as a shame.
All is not completely lost, though, director Michel Gondry has some visual flair, bathing the screen in colour and angling the lens to give some good looking shots. He makes use of a terrific split screen motif during one particular montage, and the slow motion fight scenes are excellently seen and shot, though I really didn’t like the fast frame shots, which just looked silly. The action is pretty good, Kato’s fight scene are understandably terrific, the car burial is suitably tense, even if we’re not bothered about the characters that much, and the final showdown whilst luxuriously over the top was not without its charm. And of course the Black Beauty, the Hornet’s car, gets the best of the screen time and looks absolutely stunning when it’s on screen, with as many gadgets as the Batmobile only far more deadly, this is one hellova car – my only reservation, never enough room for all the gadgets, front wheel drive, yeah right, and Britt’s final idea was one step too far, but with the cheese of it all I actually smiled.
However, flashy visuals, epic effects, spiffy angles and a great car cannot cover up what is lacking in the script and the overall boorish nature of the lead character; it is simply too much for the film to recover from. It is possible for the Hornet to have a film career, but not in this guise, as it simply does not work.
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