Reaching even further back than the recent comicbook craze for inspiration, Michel Gondry’s “The Green Hornet” feels less like a throwback to the hardboiled era in which the 1930s radio serial was hatched than an homage to buddy-based ’80s action comedies. Though the film is a blast, marketing has been a challenge, with Sony fighting bad buzz, date changes and confusion with other better-known, emerald-hued heroes (Green Lantern and Green Arrow). Ironically, that perfect storm allows the team to defy the purists and reinvent the retro vigilante to their rowdy, irreverent specs, delivering the goods for a punchy 3D breakout.
Given a comic spin by star Seth Rogen and co-writer Evan Goldberg, this 21st-century “Hornet” coasts on sheer fantasy fulfillment as the against-type protag — more couch potato than caped crusader — revels in the chance to suit up and act out his childhood superhero fantasies. When the film opens, Rogen’s Britt Reid is living it up as the playboy son of a Los Angeles newspaper tycoon (Tom Wilkinson), until his father’s sudden death by bee sting brings an abrupt end to his years of hedonism.
Forced to behave like a grown-up for the first time in his life, Britt befriends his father’s multi-talented mechanic, Kato (Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou, presumably expanding the pic’s Asian reach), and the foolhardy duo take Dad’s beloved Chrysler Imperial out on the town — a joyride that inspires the unlikely partners to launch an even unlikelier career of amateur street justice, posing as criminals and using Dad’s newspaper connections to fuel their own infamy.
By this point, modern auds are so steeped in superhero lore that “Hornet” can get away with using its endearing mix of comedy and comicbook shorthand to whisk right past such considerations as why these two characters would risk life and limb to take on L.A.’s one-stop uber-villain, Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz). Instead of brooding introspection, the script offers up comedic scenes of the pair brainstorming about costume options or trying to pick the right name, with a running joke about Kato’s superhero name still searching for its first laugh in the final scene.
Ultimately, Britt’s reckless foray into crimefighting seems motivated not by getting even (which spares us the gratuitous murder/rape/humiliation of a loved one so common in such stories), but by the excitement of finally getting out from under Daddy’s controlling thumb, which lends an air of vicarious fun to their exploits. The pic’s 3D visuals add further energy, even though the conversion was handled in post, which sometimes results in strange glitches (foreground objects that judder or windowpanes that distort) for John Schwartzman’s constantly moving camera.
The action begins mildly enough. Drug dealers and thugs pose little threat to the Green Hornet and his tricked-out Imperial — dubbed “the Black Beauty” and rigged with everything from rocket launchers to a record player — which means that until Britt and Kato manage to track down Chudnofsky, the most amusing conflict occurs between the partners themselves.
This is hardly the first buddy movie in which the love interest (Cameron Diaz plays newsgal Lenore Case) can’t compete with the chemistry between the two leads, but “Hornet” manages to be self-aware (poking innocuous fun at their too-intimate dynamic, for instance) without crossing into self-deflating wink-wink territory. The best example is a clever confrontation between Chudnofsky and a rival drug dealer (an uncredited James Franco) early in the film, which uses repartee rather than action to establish Waltz’s villainy (with the actor blending charm and menace once again in his first post-“Inglourious Basterds” appearance).
Although Gondry may seem an odd choice to direct, “Hornet” was once intended to be the helmer’s feature debut, a fact reported in the pages of Variety 14 years ago. But Gondry checks his personal aesthetic at the door, goosing this polished, big-studio exercise with an arsenal of visual tricks without calling attention to himself behind the camera.
Originally conceived 75 years ago by “The Lone Ranger” creator George W. Trendle, the Green Hornet couldn’t have been an easy character to modernize, and Rogen and Goldberg wield their comedy to excuse such details as his ineffective knockout-gas gun and the awkward master-servant dynamic. Understandably, Kato isn’t crazy about his subservient role, which is part crude Asian stereotype and part “Driving Miss Daisy.”
Among his innovations, Gondry introduces “Kato-vision,” an X-ray-style ability to instantly analyze all the weapons and threats in any given confrontation. That feature not only compensates for the fact that Chou is no Bruce Lee (who played Kato on TV) but also gives us the ability to make sense of what’s happening in the rapidly edited action scenes that follow.