Since 1936, crusading newspaper publisher Britt Reid and his friend Kato risked their lives so that criminals and racketeers within the law may feel its weight by the sting of the Green Hornet first on radio and then in Saturday afternoon matinee serials, comic books and a short-lived television series in the 1960s. But he may have met his match in the new cinematic interpretation of his crime-fighting adventures. Not from any particularly tough and wily crime boss that the film may throw at him as an opponent, which it does, but rather from the production itself, which demonstrates an appalling lack of understanding about the character in its attempt to force the square peg of actor Seth Rogen into a Green Hornet-shaped hole.
While there’s nothing wrong with The Green Hornet’s story of a spoiled rich kid having to grow up and take on responsibilities, it’s hard to root for Rogen’s interpretation of Britt when the film steadfastly insists that he remain the same doofus from the first frame of the film to the last. And for that, Rogen as co-writer is to blame. Rather than give his actor side something a bit more challenging to do in terms of acting, he plays it safe by turning Britt as yet another variation of his loveable doofus film persona. It is a one-note character and Rogen never wavers in pitch. The script tells us that Reid has been changed by the events of the movie, but Rogen’s performance never even tries to convince us that this is true.
And for those of you scoffing at the idea of Rogen playing it straight as a tough action hero with an actual character arc, I need only remind you of Michael Keaton in Tim Burton’s Batman. When the film was first announced, fans of the comic book hero were considered that the pairing of the actor from Mr. Mom and the director of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure was going to result in a joke-fest that made the 1960s camp television version seem positively Shakespearean in comparison. But as it grew closer to the film’s June 1989 release, it became gradually apparent that all involved were taking the film more seriously than expected. Keaton delivered a performance that surprised many, shaping himself to the character, rather than shaping the character to himself.
It is not as if I am opposed to the idea of a light-hearted or even outright comedic Green Hornet film. I think that there is enough room for an interpretation that lay in that direction for many characters. Even a straight-laced character such as Sherlock Holmes was able to generate laughs in 1988’s Without A Clue. But here, many of the comedy ideas come off as half-baked, a condition I somewhat suspect that Rogen and his co-writer Evan Goldberg were in during much of the scripting process. Many bits, such as a joke where Britt thinks he’s analyzing a situation in a lightning-quick fashion similar to the way we previously saw Kato use only to be informed that he has been sitting there with a blank look on his face for five minutes, fall flat. There’s just no comedy here.
Although they probably could have gotten away with omitting them and not many in the film’s target audience would have noticed, Rogen and Goldberg’s script does manage to include several of the radio and television show’s supporting cast. Cameron Diaz plays Britt’s secretary/Girl Friday Lenore Case, though if she were written as smartly as the movie wants us to believe she is, she probably would have walked out of the sexual harassment nightmare of a job interview she is subjected to by Britt. Edward James Olmos pops up through the movie as editor Mike Axford, though the film barely allows him to make an impression. Worst off, though, is David Harbour’s District Attorney Frank Scanlon, no longer a friend and ally to the Green Hornet but a corrupt politician. It’s as bad a character betrayal as it would be turn Batman’s ally Police Commissioner Jim Gordon into a villain.
On the plus side, director Michel Gondry brings a nice visual flair to the film. When auditioning for the 60s television series, the legendary Bruce Lee, who played Kato on the show, was told by producers to move slower during the fight scenes as his martial arts moves were too fast for the cameras to catch. Here, Gondry does the exact opposite. He has Chou as Kato move at regular speed but slows everything else down to visualize Kato’s remarkable speed and agility. Christoph Waltz, coming off his bravura performance in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, manages to shine in his part as the film’s chief villain, a gangster who despite controlling all of the criminal enterprises in Los Angeles still seems to be struggling with some self-esteem issues. His performance proves that it should be about the character and not the actor playing the role.