When it was announced that Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “The Science of Sleep”) would direct “The Green Hornet,” film buffs around the world scratched their heads in confusion. What could have motivated a director idolized for his love of in-camera effects and quirky storylines to attach himself to the Hollywood banality of a big budget shoot-‘em-up? After a prolonged shoot and repeatedly delayed release date, the film may have finally arrived, but the answer remains frustratingly elusive.
“The Green Hornet” disappoints because there is nothing in Gondry’s execution that explains why he was ever interested in adapting it. Gondry has always been more of an artist than a storyteller, and while his films frequently fail to make the most of their exhaustingly original premises, they have never been as lazy or as dull as this unfortunate misstep.
Based on a 1930’s American radio show that evolved into a kitschy television series co-starring Bruce Lee and later, a comic book, the big-screen incarnation is so bland, so predictable and formulaic, it could have been directed by anybody else but feels, more than anything, like a Michael Bay (“Transformers,” “Armageddon”) movie—the ultimate offense for any self-respecting film enthusiast, and a stinging slap to the face for Gondry’s fans.
The failure of the film is all the more crushing given that, for the first twenty minutes or so, “The Green Hornet” manages to be deceivingly entertaining. The pace is brisk, the look is sleek but not yet glossy, and an early exchange between Christoph Waltz’s crime lord and a cameo-ing James Franco is hilarious and refreshingly offbeat. It’s when the plot is propped up on alarmingly spindly limbs that things start to get shaky.
Following the death of his crusading journalist father, carefree playboy Britt Reid (Seth Rogan) suddenly inherits a newspaper empire, and a legacy of integrity he knows he cannot live up to. After a brief, sulky period of mourning, Reid meets his father’s mechanic, Kato (Jay Chou), who is promptly revealed to be a martial arts expert, possessing MacGyver-like levels of technical ingenuity. Reid concludes that the two of them should fight crime, but do things a little differently: pose as criminals in order to fight the real criminals without endangering the “good guys,” aka, “normal civilians.”
Unfortunately, even this tiny blip of originality is instantly vaporized in favor of typical action movie tropes. Reid and Kato start flipping cars on a crowded freeway, engaging in missile fights in public, and in other ways displaying such extreme disregard for public safety that it’s hard to find a good enough reason to root for them, especially when they seem to be taking so much glee in the carnage. On their first outing in their bullet-proof sedan, the two vigilantes unnecessarily send a police car flying through the air, but not before giving the officer inside the finger. While there’s nothing wrong with a little anti-establishment anarchy, in this case it only highlights the film’s restlessly uneven tone, which reeks of re-shoots and studio interference.
The action sequences alone would disappoint if only for their persistent mediocrity. Jittery camerawork and rapid-fire editing make a confusing mess of all the familiar collisions and chases, but worst of all is the clawing pain of wasted opportunity; audience members salivating at the prospect of a visual pioneer like Gondry directing an all-out action set piece will doubtlessly be stunned at how clichéd it all seems. Even the odd, occasional flourishes (a car driving on top of a printing press, a half-car driving through a cluttered office) feel strangely outdated. A car in an elevator? “True Lies” had a motorcycle and a horse in an elevator, and that was 18 years ago. Too often, “The Green Hornet” feels like a terrible mid-90’s action-comedy male-bonding session, like “Rush Hour” or Bay’s “Bad Boys.”
As bad as those movies were, at least their leads shared an engaging chemistry. Not so with stars Rogen and Chou who, at times, seem to genuinely dislike one another—even when they’re not supposed to be acting like it. The reason might have to do with the fact that their characters are stubbornly unlikable. Annoying, obnoxious and always louder than anyone needs to be, Rogen narrows down his trademark “likeable douchebag” routine to just “douchebag,” while Thai popstar Chou, in his English-language debut, struggles to push any emotion, or meaning, past his thick accent. The duo’s eccentric relationship (perhaps what attracted Gondry to the project, considering his well-documented affinity for odd pairings), is never firmly established and, as a result, lacks the weight required to make any of this matter.
Christoph Waltz (“Inglourious Basterds”) clearly has a blast playing image-obsessed villain Chudnofsky, and is, for a while, invigorating to watch, but as the film drags on, even he seems to lose interest. As Reid’s giggly (but still to be taken seriously) secretary, Cameron Diaz’s role seems like an afterthought, her few minutes of screentime filmed presumably after producers realized Rogen in a tight jacket wasn’t incentive enough for the audience of 14-year-old boys for which this film was originally intended.
As with most films, the weaknesses begin with the script and, based on the evidence, it’s a miracle “The Green Hornet” ever got greenlit. Written with his long-time collaborator Evan Goldberg, it’s no surprise that Rogen gives himself the lion’s share of the lines, although with dialogue this weak, it’s not much of a victory. What is surprising, however, is how mean-spirited the movie can get. With “The Green Hornet,” Rogen graduates from oafish man-child to high school bully, and as a result, everyone suffers.