Would you be interested in the adventures of a lazy, entitled frat boy who decides out of the blue that it would be cool to be a superhero? How about one who does absolutely nothing right, who leeches off of the intelligence and abilities of those around him, and who views his array of crime-fighting gadgets with the same awe as his “Guitar Hero” controllers? Okay, now how about if said frat boy were stepping into the shoes of a genuine superhero… tantamount to the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons showing up as Batman? That’s The Green Hornet in a nutshell, and while it ostensibly tries to present itself as a parody, the final equation is far more irritating than funny.
Granted, it understands at least a little of the 1960s television series on which it draws its greatest inspiration. The show featured Bruce Lee as the Green Hornet’s ostensible sidekick Kato, with The Master ultimately overshadowing Van Williams’s well-meaning lead. The new Green Hornet uses the notion as the launching point for its humor: Kato 2.0 (Jay Chou) serves as the mechanic for a powerful newspaper magnate (Tom Wilkinson), along with mastering the deadly arts and designing the kind of high-tech gadgets that make James Bond drool like pit bull. When said magnate dies, his shlubby son Britt (Seth Rogen) befriends Kato and hits upon the ill-conceived idea of fighting the city’s rampant crime as a masked vigilante.
All well and good… except that Britt brings absolutely nothing to the table. Kato’s bottomless skills and the acumen of a plucky employee at the paper (Cameron Diaz) can put the hurt on all manner of bad guys, but Britt? No fighting abilities, no clever tactics, not even a striking profile to fill the hearts of evil-doers with fear. He ends up sponging off of his sidekick while bumbling his way through various underworld dens on his way to the big showdown with the Godfather of LA (Christoph Waltz) at the end.
That sabotages any possibility of taking the film seriously--there are six-year-old girls who can throw a better punch than Rogen--but it also makes the comedy surprisingly limp. Once The Green Hornet establishes the basic rhythm, the jokes become increasingly repetitive, centered around Britt’s narcissism and the fact that Kato’s actually doing all the work. We’re treated to interminable shots of Rogen whispering “cool!” at his buddy’s latest feat, then trying to insinuate that he somehow ranks above it. The timing rarely connects, leaving an interminable asshole rather than a loveable goof at the center of it all.
The tragedy is that without him, The Green Hornet actually feels like a much better film. Chou has the chops and the charisma of a leading man, even if he struggles a bit with his English. Director Michel Gondry pulls a view nifty visual rabbits out of his hat (like the split screen following increasing numbers of underworld denizens as they spread the word about the Hornet), and demonstrates the right absurdist sensibilities to sell us on the not-quite-satirical tone. A terrific early scene speaks to great things, as Waltz throws down against a would-be nemesis (James Franco) in a curtain call of his Inglourious Basterds character. Sadly, it quickly vanishes beneath the reheated Judd Apatow material, throwing the entire film off its stride. Gondry attempts to compensate with an increasingly frantic pace as the film goes on, until we have little more than the formulaic narrative to cling to amid all the noise and mayhem.
On the other hand, how can you do a Green Hornet movie without the Green Hornet? In this case, losing Rogen would have proved impossible, since he served as a co-writer and producer as well as the star. And he may simply lack the acting chops to make his character more legitimately heroic. But tailoring the project to his onscreen persona proves disastrous, even had the material been clever enough to support it. It leaves The Green Hornet a flailing mess, similar in some ways to Will Ferrell’s Land of the Lost remake. By trying to fit its contours to the name on the marquee, it destroys our ability to enjoy it in any capacity. I have no doubt that Rogen loves the character; he should have respected it enough to find a better fit for the role… or at least stretched his own abilities in an attempt to make up the difference. The result is neither fish nor fowl: an action film that doesn’t excite and a comedy you never laugh at.