Friday, January 21, 2011

New 'Hornet' doesn't quite soar

The latest incarnation of “The Green Hornet,” a vigilante hero that dates back to 1930s radio, is a diverting, often clever entertainment that, given the talent involved, could've been something truly special.

“The Green Hornet” is directed by Michel Gondry, an imaginative music video director who has made such visually interesting and quirky films as “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Be Kind Rewind.”

Actor Seth Rogen, who stars as the titular hero, and writing partner Evan Goldberg wrote the screenplay and bring the same kind of slacker humor that worked so well in their scripts for “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express.”

Rogen and Goldberg are also producers on the film and their sensibilities may have forced out some of Gondry's personality because this definitely feels more like a Seth Rogan film than a Michel Gondry film. This is too bad as the Rogan/Gondry combination is an intriguing one. There are indeed inspired moments sprinkled throughout the film that point to the stranger, more idiosyncratic film this could've been.

The script does come at the material from a subversive slant that gives the film a different flavor than most superhero films. The film is almost a satire of the genre, but it loses steam when it goes on auto pilot and becomes a rather routine action picture.

Originally, the character of Britt Reid was a newspaper publisher by day and masked vigilante by night who was always aided by his trusted confidant Kato (played here by Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou). In this version Reid is the slacker son of a newspaper publisher (Tom Wilkinson), who inherits the job when his father dies from a bee sting.

Kato was played by none-other-than Bruce Lee in the short lived 1960s TV version of “The Green Hornet.” The series was an early showcase for Lee's fighting prowess. One of the unintentional jokes of the series was that it was really Kato that did all the true heroics while the Green Hornet got all the credit.

This new spin on the characters acknowledges this disparity and plays off it. Reid becomes a well intentioned, but ineffectual schlub of a hero. Kato is not only a martial artist master, but a genius inventor who tricks out their ride, the Black Beauty, with all sort of fun bells and whistles including, quite hilariously, a turntable. The jealousy that begins to build between the duo — culminating with an amusing brawl — is the best thing about this film.

Similarly, the villain is written with a humorous twist. Christophe Waltz, whose villainy in Quentin Tarantino's “Inglourious Basterds” won him an Academy Award, plays an aging Russian drug kingpin who is having a midlife crisis. He doesn't take it well when people say he is no longer scary. He is open to constructive criticism, but those who give it are not likely to live to see another day.

Waltz is in danger of become typecast as baddies, which is a shame because he is so good at adding color and shading to his characterization. As with “Inglourious Basterds,” he creates a villain that is intimidating and yet oddly likable.

Cameron Diaz appears as a potential love interest for Rogen and Chou, but it is an underwritten role. Writing for women is one of Rogen and Goldberg's limitations. They are great at writing male bonding banter, but write women from the point of view of awkward geeks. Consequently, there is little chemistry between either of the male leads and Diaz. Rogen and Chou do have chemistry and their playful give-and-take is fun.

Which brings us to Gondry. There are moments where his personality as a filmmaker comes shining through. In a scene early in the film Rogen raids his father's expansive garage and fools around with a woman in every car. It is played in high speed and gets a huge laugh. Much later in the film, Gondry does a visually clever variation of the splitting of the screen as news spreads from one person to two to three and so on.

Gondry also handles the fight scenes well. He employs slow motion, a cliché at this point, but manages to keep it fresh by making the action clear and allowing us to see the logic behind the fighting. Overall, having Gondry as a director seems like a missed opportunity. Had his imagination run unchecked the film could've left a lasting sting.

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