Modern superhero movies fall into two general camps: the broody, introspective tales that hinge on the hero’s discovery of his own moral weakness in a period of doubt; and the shinier, happier stories that make room for your basic inner turmoil but are mostly about the weird fun of what it means to be a masked crime-fighter in the first place. No one will ever mistake Michel Gondry’s The Green Hornet, a member of the latter group, with, say, Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, which practically have a monopoly on the former. But that’s not to say it doesn’t do its job, and do it (mostly) well. Yes, the script from star Seth Rogen and frequent collaborator Evan Goldberg has some serious issues with motivation and exposition, especially in the first act, so much so that it’s easy to wonder if these guys ever do more than two drafts before calling it a day. But there’s an undeniable fun to many parts of the film, and the energy of these key sequences props up those that aren’t as sturdy. This could have been any superhero, really, and it’s tempting to wonder why Rogen felt like resurrecting a rarely used 75-year-old character when he and Gondry could have gotten the same basic chemistry out of any similar set-up involving a spoiled playboy and his foreign sidekick. Yet ultimately, choosing the Green Hornet makes sense. This isn’t a film about a specific character so much as it is one about what it’s like for a mostly unremarkable and unmotivated twentysomething man-child to become someone better. It surpasses last year’s Kick-Ass thanks to the consistency of its subversive tone and its unwillingness to turn its female lead into a lazy sexual conquest for its hero, and it’s got solid action and smart pacing, to boot. In other words, it’s a surprisingly fun ride.
Gondry cut his teeth on music videos, and there’s an extent to which he’s still making the same type of entertainment. He’s less interested here in controlling the narrative than in letting the gradual ebb and flow of the script lead him into the action. When the screenplay comes from a brilliant writer — Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — he’s got most of the work done for him. Other times, though, it’s a different story. Rogen and Goldberg’s script has some groaners, even for a superhero film. The opening scene sees a young boy cowering before a father (Tom Wilkinson) who scolds him for trying to stop a playground fight and destroying the boy’s favorite action figure before intoning ominously, “Trying doesn’t matter when you always fail.” In addition to being just plain clumsy, it’s also unnecessary: 20 years down the road, the boy has become Britt Reid (Rogen), bored playboy and heir to a Los Angeles newspaper empire who spends his nights partying and his mornings being scolded by his father for not applying himself. Right away, there are a few too many negative motivations running between Britt and his father — why should Britt apply himself when his dad already said not to waste his time? Why should Britt bother standing up for good when success is apparently binary? etc. — but it’s also a prime example of redundant scenes penned by insecure screenwriters. All we need is a genuine confrontation between the adult Britt and his father to get a sense of their history and relationship. Jumping around in time is needless, especially when the story gets into the dad’s actual motivations down the road, which are altogether different.
Soon enough, though, Britt’s father dies, leaving the young man the keys to the kingdom. Britt’s completely uninterested in the paper or the stories it’s trying to cover, including the criminal acts of a man called Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz), a kingpin who’s got a strangle-hold on the L.A. underworld. The story shags along harmlessly until Britt starts talking with Kato (Jay Chou), his father’s mechanic, a martial arts expert who spends his free time adding armaments to the Reid fleet of classic cars and coming up with ways to turn himself into a sort of vigilante. There’s a nice touch here of something like verisimilitude: a superhero might not wake up one day wanting to be one, but he could certainly be talked into it by an obsessive partner who’s been preparing for the opportunity. It isn’t until Britt and Kato take to the streets one night in a souped-up car dubbed the Black Beauty, with Britt assuming an identity he’ll come to call the Green Hornet, that Gondry’s energy level rises and the film blessedly enters an enjoyable phase. There’s a genuine glee to the way the men throw themselves into the fray to stop a local gang from harassing a young couple, and Gondry’s eye for inventive effects (car hoods that magically extend, speed that would be impossible even in the Matrix) keeps the fight sequences fresh. These battle sequences are also when Britt and Kato have the best chemistry, though not just because they’re fighting: it’s because Britt finally gets into the game, even when Kato has to save him. That kind of sacrifice requires a certain amount of humility, however brief, and it’s those saving graces that make the character likeable at times.
Because most of the time, Rogen isn’t that likeable. Britt is merely a cipher, a straight man chosen because audiences know a lot less about him than they do Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne, and he lets Rogen be himself. Rogen acts here with the same brash, abrasive, and occasionally dickish persona he’s brought to every role he’s ever had, and though Britt can be shaped to fit Rogen easily enough, you get the sense that Rogen never bothered to meet the character halfway. He doesn’t even bother hiding his Canadian accent, e.g., pronouncing “tomorrow” so the second syllable rhymes with “more.” This isn’t acting; this is riffing. Even Robert Downey Jr. was able to bring a bit of spark to his portrayal of Tony Stark in the Iron Man films by using his own personality as a springboard but then letting the character’s motivations take over once the engine was running. Rogen isn’t even interested in doing that much.
So why did I say several paragraphs ago that the film is a fun one if I was just going to spend ~700 words talking about its shortcomings? Weirdly, that’s part of the appeal of the overall package. Gondry packs the films with little grace notes, and his adeptness at staging frenetic sequences makes this one of the most enjoyable action films of the past few years simply because Gondry (working with cinematographer John Schwartzman) has the presence of mind to shoot wide enough and steady enough so that the viewer understands what’s happening. The quick cuts and graceful camera movements provide a battle geography, so that even in particularly high-flying sequences (including a great car chase through town), you’re thrown around but never lost. He also pairs the fights with energetic modern rock, in effect turning the fights into expertly choreographed videos.
The script also boasts such moments of happiness. Rogen and Goldberg’s plotting picks up a little, and most of the actors get to revel in solid punch lines or moments of sheer absurdity, as when Chudnofsky becomes infatuated with the tales of the man calling himself the Green Hornet and decides to wear his own costume, complete with gas mask, for reasons known only to him. Waltz hams it up with the casual skill of an actor calm enough to know what he’s doing, and you start to root for him, in a way. Cameron Diaz breezes through as Lenore, Britt’s secretary and a burgeoning criminologist whom he uses to plan his crime-fighting moves as the Hornet. Thankfully, miraculously, Lenore is not an idiot or a slut or an easy mark. She is, in this shaggy dog of a movie, the most capable woman in a superhero movie since Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Dark Knight. Just typing that made my head spin a little, but such are the weird charms of The Green Hornet.
Gondry’s film isn’t going to revolutionize superhero movies, nor does it attempt to. It checks at the door the self-seriousness that infects most of the genre’s stories, wisely remembering that there should probably be something fun about seeing a man put on a mask and blow up meth labs while “Gangsta’s Paradise” plays on a surprisingly well-mounted turntable in the back seat of a muscle car. The Green Hornet is an earnest and well-meaning buddy-story, strung together by decent jokes, cute gimmicks, and an air of genuine amusement, and the execution mostly makes up for the sketchy planning. If it were any better, it wouldn’t be as good.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.