Ego is a dangerous weapon in most professions, but no more so than in the modern Hollywood landscape that bends whichever way the trendy wind blows. Young box office stars are given unprecedented power and credibility almost immediately, creating a bubble of entitlement and arrogance that often translates to the screen. It’s even worse when these actors and directors buy into their own hype and actually believe the holier-than-now bullshit those siren producers and executives whisper into their ears. Newly minted creative freedom brings great responsibility, and many of these performers buckle under the pressure to deliver something beyond their surface-level representation.
Such a mortal blow will inevitably befall Seth Rogen’s wildly outlandish, silly, and expensive goofball adaptation of The Green Hornet, a superhero movie so in love with itself that it alienates the viewer from the first frame. Considering the long production delays, the firing of Hong Kong icon Stephen Chow, and now the overall crummy result, it’s easy to believe this might be Rogen’s swan song as a Hollywood player. The disconnect between what the filmmakers obviously think is funny or exciting and the glaring reality that most of the film fails to elicit either emotion is proof enough.
Directed by Michel Gondry, modern cinema’s resident authority on romantic dreams and broken hearts, The Green Hornet feels surprisingly awake and willingly crass for a film about delusion. But this has everything to do with Rogen’s influence on the production. The actor is auteur (I use this term loosely) in this film, and facial expressions and beats are worth far more than camera movement or blocking.
The story of playboy turned vigilante Britt Reid (Rogen) reeks of contrivance from the very beginning. A nasty little prologue establishes why this spoiled man-child resents his wealthy newspaper mogul father (Tom Wilkinson), punting a now grown Britt into the adult world where Daddy ends up dead (of a bee sting no less!). Content to live a life of languishing luxury, Britt sees the light when he meets his father’s mechanic, Kato (Jay Chou), a chiseled Chinese martial arts expert who moonlights as the family barista. Their brotherly (and occasionally romantic) bond forms over a drunken night of ranting and raving about the recently deceased patriarch that culminates in the film’s most audacious action sequence. Kato’s ample physical abilities are communicated through clever manipulation of space, where slow motion seems to bend not only time, but also the frame itself. Each kick and punch delivers ravishing ferocity, and it’s a shame Gondry never expands on these kinetic aesthetics later in the film.
Britt and Kato take this initial adrenaline rush and compound it into dual superhero identities, kicking ass and taking names to clean up the darkening Los Angeles streets. Their desire to help the community feels as offhand as any of the testicles jokes or gay cracks the two volley at each other, yet a few sequences infuse the comedy with physical movement quite well. When the pair engages in a Keaton-esque grudge match inside one of Britt’s posh rooms, the absurdity of the violence and facial expressions delightfully resonates with slapstick comedy. It’s the only time Kato’s mastery of karate and Rogen’s machine-gun banter complement each other perfectly, and not at the cost of the story or the supporting characters. Conflict, desire, and consequence have no real place in the film, and the action scenes grow angrier, more inane, increasingly bland as the film reaches its tired action-set-piece crescendo, a lengthy chase sequence infused with explosions, acrobatics, and slow motion that begins in a sushi restaurant and ends in a Los Angeles high rise.
The Green Hornet is more about running gags than plot or character, and the script continuously binds various couplings with repeating dialogue and gyrating gadgets. The competitive streak between Britt and Kato is the most consistent example, where the character’s repressed anger becomes externalized through the myriad of cool inventions the duo use to battle crime. Britt’s lame advances on his secretary Lenore (Cameron Diaz) and outlandish baddie Chudnofsky’s (Christoph Waltz) attempts to instill victims with fear also become terribly redundant by film’s end. This repetition inevitably erodes all sense of pacing, and Gondry can’t hold the reins long enough to focus the rapidly spinning storylines. As Vadim Rizov noted in his spot-on assessment of the film for Green Cine Daily, there are few identifying marks of the filmmaker’s previous work (only a late montage crackles with Gondry’s love for model structures), and this artistic castration might be the film’s most damning failure. For a film with so many potentially hallucinatory avenues, imagination seems to be a worthless currency.
Oddly, The Green Hornet casually addresses a growing professional burden most film critics and journalists find ubiquitous this day and age. Britt and Kato consistently battle the corruption and compromises that deface their family-run paper (the last of its kind in the city) from the inside out, but end up destroying the very physical place they want to save. The horrendous climax takes place inside the newspaper’s office building, where interior walls are sprayed with bullets, unnecessary explosions destroy infrastructure, and the building’s glass elevator is even decimated by the Hornet’s super car “Black Beauty.” Fittingly, the destruction allows Britt to access a company hard drive so he can publish incriminating material not through print, but on the newspaper blog. The irony would be funny if it wasn’t so god damn sad.
The clashing of tones and the mixture of genres in The Green Hornet all point to a film balancing multiple identities, one that lacks a singular artist at the wheel. Rogen obviously wanted to make an ambitious genre film, but the superfluous screenplay he co-wrote with Evan Goldberg just reinforces the same childish tropes you can find in any other comedy or action film, leaving only glimmers of creative promise dancing from scene to scene. Most worrisome is how Gondry and Rogen in particular genuinely think these referential antics and snide impressions are universally entertaining. The American box office receipts will ultimately tell them if they’re right, but my best guess is that people will see The Green Hornet clearly as the problematic dream project of a young star absolutely unprepared for such massive cinematic lucidity. Growing up is hard to do in Hollywood, especially when the powers that be have convinced you wisdom and experience can be bought and sold.