Sunday, January 16, 2011

Green Hornet: Lacks Sting

This movie is a tough call. Normally I find it pretty clear whether to mention a movie as worth seeing ("of note") or better to stay away. There are a lot of nifty things in this film: that cool black car, some fine karate-style fighting, some great visual framing of explosions and car chases, and a deadpan performance from Academy award-winner Christoph Waltz as fashion-envious bad-guy Chudnofsky. The end credits are fun too. These are all the elements to make a fine, Saturday afternoon matinee, the kind of ten-dollar entertainment I was hoping to see.

Unfortunately, the elements just don't hang together, largely due to a too-juvenile script by writers Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg. That's sad to say, because it's not that Rogan doesn't give it his all, skinnying up for the film and adopting some nifty judo moves. Jay Chou as Kato also does his best stepping into the role played by Bruce Lee. But even as a film aimed at fourteen-year-olds (as this one seems to be), Green Hornet fails to deliver the goods.

Part of it is that the combination of Rogan-style deadpan Dangerfield shtick with super-hero Freudian motivation just misses the mark entirely. Rogan plays Britt Reid, heir to newspaper mogul James Reid (Tom Wilkinson), who has built his paper, the Sentinel, into a bastion of public good. He's also straight out of a different economic era - more Randolf Hearst than Arthur Sulzberger, who recently predicted the end of print journalism. The Reids live in an impossibly huge L.A. mansion, with Britt particularly leading the luxury party life of a spoiled brat. Rogan tries to give Britt his typical dorky insouciance, but since he's rich and kind of an asshole, he's just not that likable (even if his father did rip of the head of his toy when he was boy).

The problem with the movie is that even after Dad dies and Britt and his "manservant" Kato (who used to be his father's mechanic) decide to play dress-up as crime-fighting bad dudes, Britt never grows up. He constantly remains the spoiled, dorky asshole through to the end of the film. That leaves you wishing this movie would kick into gear...start sending the hero down some kind of life lesson... but the only lesson Britt gets is that he can tear up the city with impunity just like he did when he was a rich playboy.

The only adult in the film seems to be Waltz's Chudnofsky, a syndicate boss psychopath who controls all of L.A.'s street gangs. At least Chudnofsky has a sense of perspective: he actually listens to the advice of a cocky criminal after he shoots him in the face, and keeps his cool when assassinating mouthy henchmen. He makes a perfect foil to the juvenile Hornet and his bad-ass but equally inexperienced side-kick, and there's a nice motif being started about youth and wisdom. Sad to say, it's never thought through, like most of this messy story.

The movie is like one of those Monty Python sketches, where just as the bad-guy might impart some pithy comment, a ten-ton anvil drops on his head. Dead, now...and the good guys can move on with their next fight-fest.

There's also Cameron Diaz, as Lenore Case, the token hottie-petottie. It's a bit sorry to see Rogan referring to Diaz as "old" - and Diaz slumming herself, or so it seems, to make a buck trotting her ass in this cartoon fluff. Diaz has played this type before (The Mask comes to mind), but much better, and with more gusto. If anything makes me feel old, it's this movie and the way it so lamely recycles what was once a comic original (and yes, I'm referring both to Diaz and to the part).

In the end, it seems that the only original touch in Green Hornet is a discussion about whether bad guys should wear Armani, or good guys a green Zoot suit from the fifties. That's probably only there because the producers told Rogan he needed to make a "modern," Green Hornet, with modernized version of the original camp humor, and not a fifties re-hash, and that was the only way he could think of to explain the cool Fifties outfits. Director Michael Gondry does have one inspired moment where he splits the screen again and again to show how Chudnofsky sends a missive to the massive underworld to go out and kill the Hornet: the continually splitting screen is like a bee pollinating the criminal gardens of L.A., one by one, until the entire landscape is polluted. It's both a great visual metaphor for Chudnofsky's control of the city, and a nice Hornet-y touch. Unfortunately, it's an isolated moment that's far too rare.

Overall, I think the movie would have been better without explaining the outfits, without the lame psycho-paternis back story, and without the juvenile competition over the hottie-petottie - just more car chases, bullets, and karate. It wouldn't have made any more sense, but it might have been more interesting to sit through, and more worthy of being a Saturday matinee of note.