Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Green Hornet (Original Films/Columbia, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I’d just picked up a bare-bones DVD of The Green Hornet, released earlier this year with Seth Rogen, usually known as a comedian (and a, shall we say, heavy-set one at that; he lost 30 pounds to fit the role, more or less) but clearly one of the auteurs of this film because he also co-produced and co-wrote it as well as starring as Daily Sentinel publisher Britt Reid, who suddenly assumes that job after the death of his father James (Tom Wilkinson). The Green Hornet began in 1938 as a radio program, produced by George W. Trendle and written by Fran Striker, the same team behind The Lone Ranger (and rather churlishly, Trendle is credited in the new film but Striker is not, even though when Universal filmed a Green Hornet serial — two of them, actually — in 1940 she not only got credit but her name was on a separate card!), and was quite consciously an attempt to do a Lone Ranger-type character in a contemporary setting.

The Lone Ranger had a Native American sidekick named Tonto; the Green Hornet had an Asian sidekick named Kato. (The show was a bit undecided as to what Asian country Kato came from; originally he was Japanese, then Filipino after Japanese became decidedly un-P.C. after December 7, 1941, though Universal’s serials — there were two — had already made him Korean, but the makers of the new film made Kato Chinese, perhaps because the two previous actors who had played him on film, Keye Luke in the Universal serials and Bruce Lee in the 1966 TV series, were Chinese.) The Lone Ranger rode a silver horse named Silver; the Green Hornet drove a black car named Black Beauty (a Mercury coupé in the Universal serial, a Lincoln Continental in the TV show and a Chrysler Imperial here — since the Imperial hasn’t been made in decades the filmmakers purchased 23 of them, of which only three actually were drivable). The Lone Ranger’s theme song was derived from a classical piece, the William Tell Overture by Rossini, so the Green Hornet (at least on the air and in his previous film incarnations) used a classical theme, Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” (though it’s not heard in this film at all except for a brief snippet of a 1950’s jazz version by Billy May just before the closing credits; instead the classical theme we do hear is, of all things, the opening of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony!) — and according to the guidebooks published for the show’s writers, the Green Hornet was supposed to be the Lone Ranger’s grandnephew, though I don’t recall that being made clear on the show itself.

The Green Hornet is a decent though not truly great modern-day superhero movie, an odd combination of the Tim Burton Batman and Arthur — Britt Reid is characterized as a useless playboy (the script by Rogen and Evan Goldberg even copied the famous gag from Arthur of Britt waking up with an anonymous girl in his bed; he can’t remember her name and he doesn’t get a chance to make morning-after small talk before his manservant has hustled her out) who’d be helpless without faithful Kato (Jay Chou, an Asian singing star; he’s personable and considerably cuter than his co-star but he’s obviously being doubled or faked in the action scenes and no one would ever mistake him for Bruce Lee!). Interestingly, despite the age of the character this Green Hornet film is the first purpose-made feature film with him — the previous Green Hornet movies included two edited down from the Universal serials and two edited down from the TV show (one of which was released in 1974 to take advantage of Bruce Lee’s enduring fame) — and the story features urban corruption in Los Angeles and the complicity (though we don’t find that out until the end) of the city’s district attorney, Frank Scanlon (David Harbour), who makes it look like crime is going down in the city simply by refusing to take reports of the activities of Russian émigré gangster Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz, the marvelous villain from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds but here a good deal less effective in a sillier and less colorful role), who midway through the film dons a red suit and starts to call himself “Bloodnofsky” to gain some of the costumed street-cred of the Green Hornet.

The Green Hornet is directed by Michel Gondry, who lucked out in his reputation because he got his name on one truly great film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but that was really a Schreiber film whose quality owed far more to the marvelous script by Charles Kaufman than anything Gondry brought to it (as Gondry proved when he tried for the same nervous imbalance between reality and dream in a film without Kaufman, The Science of Sleep, which sucked) — and like Bill Evans, who got an unearned reputation by appearing on the Kind of Blue album with two authentic jazz geniuses, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Gondry has got an unearned reputation as a major director thoroughly belied by the combination of attention-getting but not attention-grabbing action sequences and unfunny “comic relief” bits that constitute The Green Hornet. I’m not saying this is a bad film, exactly — though Seth Rogen is horrendously miscast (among the other actors were considered were George Clooney — who would probably have been good, though he’d got the worst reviews of his major career playing Batman and may therefore have decided against taking on another superhero — Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Wahlberg and Vince Vaughn) — it’s just another modern-day mediocre actioner whose makers made one of the most annoying possible mistakes in filmmaking: they never decided whether they wanted it to be serious or comic, so they tried to do both and ended up falling short in both thrills and laughs.