Imagine if you crossed Cheech and Chong's 1970s stoner masterpiece Up In Smoke with the gadget-enhanced asskickery of Batman Begins. Sounds like it could never work, right? But Seth Rogen's Green Hornet proves that it does. And it's surprisingly awesome.
There has been a lot of grumbling about Green Hornet, ever since it was first announced that Seth Rogen would be co-writing and producing - a superhero flick written with Knocked Up-style humor? A dumb loser who fights crime? Then when artsy, surreal director Michel Gondry came on board, famous for his weird movies Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep, people wondered how the hell Rogen and Gondry would pull this thing off. More bad news came last year, when studio execs saw the picture and said it was too campy - and delayed its release by almost a year. So this movie was seriously handicapped right out of the gate.
But, as the opening credits in the 1960s series trumpet: "It's another challenge for the Green Hornet!" And I think this bizarre take on the superhero movie rises to the challenge.
Like Batman Begins, this version of the Green Hornet story takes us back to the origins of our hero and his sidekick/partner Kato. Britt (Seth Rogen) is the playboy son of a newspaper magnate who, unlike the usual superhero's father, has been an abusive dick to his son throughout his childhood. In a flashback scene that's both funny and surprisingly disturbing, we see Britt's dad chewing out the young Britt for getting into a fight defending some kids who were being beaten up. "I was trying to help!" Britt sobs. "Trying doesn't matter if you always fail!" his father yells, while ripping the head off Britt's favorite superhero action figure. Now we know why Britt is such damaged goods later in life - and we're introduced to the film's oddball tone, which hovers between campy genre antics and a genuine psychological darkness. Fathers in this movie may be inspirational, but they're also assholes. And so is Britt.
When his father dies under mysterious circumstances, Britt the party boy suddenly inherits his father's vast newspaper empire and his entire fortune. Admitting that he barely reads his dad's paper, he shrugs off his responsibilities and fires his father's household staff. He gets his wakeup call, amusingly, when he realizes that his morning coffee suddenly sucks - and learns that his father's mechanic Kato has been making him perfect cappuccinos every morning. "Bring me Kato!" he yells. And when Kato (hot Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou) comes riding up on his motorcycle, to show Britt his amazing espresso machine and crazy, homebrew armored cars, it's the start of the bromance that drives the story.
Bonding over the awesomeness of Kato's gadgets, and their experiences with Britt's dad being a dick to them, the two decide to go out and fight crime together - by pretending to be criminals themselves. And they use Britt's papers to publicize their fairly lame antics, in order to make the town's evil, neurotic crime lord take them on. All these scenes are terrific, and somehow Rogen manages to parlay his "dude this is awesome" attitude into creating a believably violent slacker crime-fighter who takes credit for the superheroic feats of the man he calls his sidekick.
One of the tropes that keeps on giving in Green Hornet is the idea that Kato is the real hero. He's dashing, cool under pressure, an amazing fighter who can move in bullet time, and a super-genius who can build rocket-powered cars and custom weapons. This is a tip of the hat to the 60s show, where Bruce Lee's Kato was often sidelined, despite being the more interesting, asskicking character. In the film, however, Kato gets his due. We see clearly that he's the brains and brawn of the operation - the only things that Britt has to offer are enthusiasm, cash, and control of the media (so they can do their Green Hornet propaganda). Britt and Kato truly are partners - even if it takes Britt most of the movie to realize that - and their relationship is rough-and-tumble sweet in a way that reminded me of the best dude bonding moments in Superbad.
Their target is a vicious criminal mastermind, Chudnofsky, with a PR problem. Sure, he controls the Los Angeles crime world, but his name is dumb and he wears awful, shiny 1970s suits. Played by the always-awesome Christopher Waltz, Chudnofsky divides his time between brutally murdering people with his mega-gun and trying to come up with a cool new brand to get out of his middle-age rut. At one point, he decides to go by "Blood-nofsky" and wear a red cape. He makes the perfect foil for the Green Hornet and Kato.
Perhaps because the film is so satirical, it also manages to go to some pretty dark places that even a movie like Batman can't. Unlike a traditional superhero movie, where the protagonist generally refuses to kill people, Green Hornet and Kato revel in blowing their enemies away. Their souped-up car, the Black Beauty, shoots missiles and flames and other weird ammo, decimating the bad guys (who are often cops, since the Green Hornet's cover is that he's a criminal). Though Britt has a heart of gold, he's also a selfish prick - he sexually harasses his secretary while also insulting her for being old; he takes credit for Kato's work; and he turns his newspaper into a joke to promote Green Hornet's antics. And, though I won't give you any spoilers, I think it's safe to say that he doesn't ever really learn his lesson - he keeps screwing up right to the end.
Gondry's psychedelic visuals and worldbuilding add to the feeling that we're not in your typical superhero movie. The much-touted "Kato vision," which is really just a cartoony tweak on bullet time, is fun to watch - but it also says "freaking out on acid" rather than "action sequence." Of course there are plenty of great action scenes, but they're played for laughs and often end (surprisingly) in death.
All these details make Green Hornet a sneaky subversion of superhero genre while also giving us a blow-em-up good time. I'm not saying it's perfect - for a comedy, it's way too long, and some of Rogen's trademark "I'm a lovable douche" bits fall flat. But it's far more inventive and delightful than blockbusters like Tron Legacy or Iron Man II. The point is that this is a movie that's genuinely fun to watch, and will often surprise you with its twisted sense of humor. I have a feeling it may not get the recognition it deserves, partly because of the bad press that hung over it from the beginning - but also because people don't generally go to action movies expecting to have all their favorite tropes turned on their heads and punched in the crotch. In this way, Green Hornet is a bit like the Bruce Willis cult classic Hudson Hawk. It's just a little too weird to be loved by everyone.
If you're looking for something that's a bit scruffy and off the beaten track, but still full of giant explosions, you'll definitely want to check out Green Hornet this weekend.
Special note: This movie is in 3D for absolutely no reason. Not unlike most movies coming out in 3D these days. If you see it in 2D, you'll have just as much fun.