In an interview with Total Film several years ago, legendary comic book creator Alan Moore said that “The main reason why comics can’t work as films is largely because everybody who is ultimately in control of the film industry is an accountant”. Those accountants have certainly been counting their receipts over the last few years, with massive successes in the form of the Sam Raimi Spider-man and the Christopher Nolan Batman franchises just to mention a few. At some point, one imagines the Hollywood boffins will run out of four-colour heroes to mine, already set to remake Spider-man less than three years since Raimi dropped the emo musical that was Spider-man 3. Yet even with a few hiccups along the way in the form of Elektra and more recently Jonah Hex, the bookkeepers of Tinseltown continue to plumb the depths of second-string heroes.
The Green Hornet first came to prominence as a radio serial created by George W. Trendle (The Lone Ranger) and Fran Striker in the 1930s. Achieving great success across multiple media – including a comic book series, books and films – most folk will remember the short-lived 1960s TV series with Van Williams in the titular role and none other than Bruce Lee as his partner Kato. Co-scripted by regular partners Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (Superbad, Pineapple Express), the pair update the tale for visually striking director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). After his media magnate father James Reid (Tom Wilkinson, The Ghost Writer) dies, Britt Reid (Seth Rogen) meets his father’s long-time mechanic and barista Kato (Jay Chou) and decides they need to do something with their lives. Capitalising on Kato’s mechanical skills and Reid’s newspaper connections, the pair soon become a crime-fighting duo under the guise of The Green Hornet and his unknown partner. Posing as crooks to catch the crooks, they soon earn the ire of crime boss Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds) and the war on the streets begin.
Big screen adaptations of lesser known heroes haven’t always been successful, with Daredevil being a perfect example of what happens when Hollywood thinks they know better than decades worth of comic history. If the filmmakers in that instance had taken the source material a little more seriously, then perhaps success and sequels would have followed. However, the irony of The Green Hornet is that its completely irreverent attitude is precisely what makes it work. From the über-serious epic nature of The Dark Knight to the borderline ridiculousness of an attempt to do the same in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, audiences would be forgiven for being jaded by the similarly weighty tone of recent spandex cinema. Rogen’s Reid does not take on the mantle of a crime-fighter due to the death or dismemberment of a loved one, and nor is he bestowed the proportional strength of an insect after a bizarre accident. His motivation is far more Rogen than that: sheer boredom.
Perhaps what is most surprising about The Green Hornet is just how hilarious it is. Unapologetically full of buffoonery, Rogen adapts the material to his own brand of comedy. Much as Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World saw Michael Cera recast Scott Pilgrim as Michael Cera, there is something instantly compelling about the sheer clueless meandering in the first half of the film. The appeal of superheroes, at least in the United States, is that they represent everything a society should aspire to: truth, justice and god-like powers over life and death. Nobody notices that Superman is really Clark Kent without glasses because nobody wants to believe that, they believe in the ideal. Here that ideal is cleverly subverted, catering directly to a generation of slackers and geeks who could all be capes if they wanted to, but…whatevs. If the guy from Kick Ass had a bucket-load of money and no sense of social responsibility, or if Bruce Wayne existed in the real world, then you’d get The Green Hornet.
The rest of the casting is pretty spot-on as well. With the exception of a misstep in the casting of Cameron Diaz (The Box) – and a few wasted opportunities, particularly veteran Tom Wilkinson as the largely deceased father – both of the leads are excellent. Jay Chou, perhaps most recognisable to western audiences from Zhang Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower, delivers a star turn as the put-upon Kato, a “human Swiss Army knife” as Rogen’s character describes him. Overcoming the daunting legacy of Bruce Lee, he completely manages to make the role his own and in many ways steals a number of scenes away from the crowd-pleasing Rogen. Waltz is loving every minute of being the villain again, doing far more than simply transplanting his Inglourious Basterds‘ Landa to the 21st century. He balances the difficult task of making the audience laugh while remaining a convincing threat to the schemes of The Green Hornet and Kato.
Visually, the film uses all of the tricks in Gondry’s bag. Honed for years on music videos and pioneering some of the techniques used on The Matrix on his Smirnoff commercials, Gondry delivers an incredibly slick mix of sound and vision that is distinctly his own, yet characteristically different from anything Gondry has delivered in the past. The car, the Black Beauty, is a machine that James Bond would have given his right arm for, and is the type of rev-head porn that keeps us tuning into Top Gear every year. However, it must be said that this is one of the worst uses of 3D to date, barely noticeable for the first two-thirds of the picture, except the occasionally out-of-focus object or character. Only in the spectacular finale, where the film almost threatens to topple off the rails, do the eye-popping effects (and end titles) finally justify the wearing of 3D glasses for 119 minutes. However, the film breezes through to this point that you’ll want to get off the ride just so you can get back in line and do it all again.
The Reel Bits: A hilarious, kinetic and visually punchy action film that proves that you don’t have to be serious to be taken seriously in the comic book world.
The Green Hornet is released in Australia by Sony Pictures Australia on 20 January, 2011.