Silver Screen: The Green Hornet **1/2
When the radio serial The Green Hornet made a brief transition to the small screen as a superhero smashup in the mold of the popular Batman series at the tail end of the 1960s, a then-unknown Bruce Lee was cast as Kato, the Hornet's trusty sidekick. The show, which helped introduce the martial arts to United States audiences, was cancelled after one season, but it gained significant popularity in translation in Hong Kong, where Lee was already becoming a star; there the program was known as The Kato Show.
That inversion of the dynamic for a dynamic duo is the primary-- really the only-- gag behind Seth Rogen's semi-parody version of The Green Hornet, in which the resourceful sidekick (here played by Taiwanese pop icon Jay Chou) does all the heavy lifting while the schlubby hero of the title cracks jokes and takes all the credit.
Rogen stars as Brit Reid, the layabout heir to a media empire saddled with the responsibility of running a newspaper after the sudden death of his father (Tom Wilkinson). The hard-partying rich boy strikes up a friendship with his father's assistant, Kato, who proves to be a man of many talents; he not only designed a state-of-the-art coffee machine for the late Mister Reid, he also built a nearly indestructible armed car for the paranoid mogul.
Brit and Kato take the car out to make some mischief and wind up foiling a robbery-- or rather, Brit stumbles into the middle of it and Kato dispatches the attackers. The encounter inspires Brit with an idea to carry on his father's legacy as a crusader for justice: He'll be a literal crusader (albeit not caped), and with a lot of help from Kato he will pose as a criminal to lure out figures of the L.A underworld and bring them to justice.
So far, so good. The Brit/Kato dynamic is a good one, as is the Chou/Rogen matchup. The notion of a slightly inept crimefighter being outshone by his sidekick is great fodder for an action comedy, and it drives the film, at least in those moments when The Green Hornet is actually going somewhere.
But the rest of the plot-- namely the inevitable love interest and the villain-- feels phoned in. Cameron Diaz, who plays Lenore Case, Brit's secretary-- and also happens to have backgrounds in journalism and criminology-- is almost as scarce and dispensable as Gwyneth Paltrow in Iron Man. She inadvertently provides the boys with a roadmap to both fighting crime and posing as criminals, but despite serving a legitimate function in the story, her presence is always an afterthought at best and a distraction at worst. She's implausible as a love interest for both Brit and Kato, each of whom fixate on her in one of the movie's more belabored subplots.
As for the villain, the casting is spot on: Inglourious Basterds' Christoph Waltz can play an antagonist with the best of them. Unfortunately, he's got literally almost nothing to work with as underworld boss Chudnovsky, whose primary gimmick is a silly-looking pistol with two barrels. The meta-comedy of his increasing obsession with coming up with a hook, catchphrase, or costume to distinguish himself not only isn't nearly as funny as it sounds, it's unfortunately apropos.
Still, The Green Hornet achieves some momentum in the first hour despite its shortcomings. The same lack of nobility or even basic competence that makes Brit amusing for the first half of the movie gradually becomes annoying, as our sort-of hero fails to even attempt to rise to the occasion. The gag of a useless protagonist eventually loses its steam, which makes Brit's incessant bumbling and trash talking increasingly annoying.
Strangely enough, the fact that The Green Hornet is directed by Michel Gondry is almost tangential. Gondry is a compelling, distinctive director with an immediately identifiable style, but that's mostly lost here, buried beneath Rogen and cowriter Evan Goldberg's dominant (and almost defiantly antivisual) sensibilities and a heap of uninspired action sequences. The Michel Gondry of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep, inventive and often whimsical, is evident only in flashes: once in a scene in which the camera pans slowly around a multicar garage as Brit makes out with a party girl in every vehicle available in fast motion, and later in a terribly written scene in which Brit pretty much explains the plot of the movie to both himself and the audience. Gondry turns that exposition into a playful flurry of colors that plays like a pop-art slideshow set on warp speed, and it's so nifty looking you almost don't even notice what a lazy bit of writing it is.
Much like the title character, The Green Hornet just seems to be half-assing it all the way.
Obnoxious Ubiquity of 3D Update: As is made clear in the incessant marketing, The Green Hornet is presented in the inescapable new ticket-price-inflating 3D, and boy, does that not help. It seems pretty clearly retrofitted rather than conceived as a 3D film, not unlike Clash of the Titans, with one or two sequences built around the technology and the rest of the movie just being a vague distraction. In the inevitable split-screen montage sequence (why, it looks like panels from a comic book!), the shifting depths of the different screens is incredibly annoying and hard to watch. There's also still the standard motion blur anytime the action moves too quickly, not to mention the fact that Things Popping Out of the Screen ranks right up there with Shiny Objects and Loud Noises as pitifully simplistic gimmickry.