DVD Catch-Up: The Green Hornet (8/11/2011)

The Green Hornet is, in its own less public way, the film equivalent to the long awaited Guns N’ Roses album “Chinese Democracy” in that it took forever to finally get made before being released to a less than interested public.  For years I heard story after story about a proposed Green Hornet adaptation move from writer to writer, studio to studio, and actor to actor only to get cancelled and then green lit once again.  All this time I kept thinking “is this franchise really worth all this trouble?”  I suppose there are some people who fondly remember the short lived ABC television series from back in the day, and some people who fondly remember the radio series from way back in the day, but is it really a franchise that can guarantee box office receipts?  But that logic did not seem to hit the studio heads and they were able to finally move forward with a production team that was kind of interesting.  In particular, I was interested in the choice of Michel Gondry to direct the film and I was also interested to see what comic actor Seth Rogen would bring to the table.

The film is set in modern day Los Angeles and follows Britt Reid (Seth Rogen), the slacker son of the famed newspaper publisher James Reid (Tom Wilkinson).  Early in the movie James Reid dies from an allergic reaction to a bee sting and Britt is left with a substantial fortune and a newspaper that he isn’t particularly qualified to run.  In addition he gets to better know one of his father’s servants named Kato (Jay Chou) who has amazing technical skills, is a proficient martial artists, and can make a killer cup of coffee.  Britt convinces Kato to help him pull a public prank while masked which goes wrong and leads the police to think there’s a master criminal involved.  Britt decides to run with this and turn himself and Kato into a pair of masked vigilantes that the police will believe are criminals.  Kato builds a car called the Black Beauty with on board machine guns, missiles, and all the other car accessories made famous by the James Bond franchise.  Of course the problem with this haphazard little plan is that it would lead them to be pursued by both the police and by gangsters who believe that their territory is being encroached on.

In the interest of full disclosure I should mention that I watched this movie under less than ideal circumstances.  I received a Blu-Ray of the film from Netflix only to have it wig out at the 58 minute mark.  Upon examining the disc I saw some prominent scratches on the play surface.  I reported the problem, received a new disc, started it where I left off and… it started wigging out at the 68 minute mark, scratches again.  I might be a physical media purist, but I guess every format has its problems.  I did finally get a functioning disc with my third try and watched the rest of the film without any major concerns.  I don’t think this viewing experience wildly harmed my viewing but I must say that if I hadn’t been planning to write a review I strongly suspect I wouldn’t have bothered ordering a replacement disc.

The problem with The Green Hornet probably is rooted in its troubled production history.  There seem to be way too many different and contradictory ideas floating around in the film and the result is a movie that is sort of a mess.  You can see the three different movies that seem to have been shoved into the one film in an early scene where the villain, Benjamin Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz), confronts a rival gangster being played by James Franco in a cameo appearance.  The scene itself fits well into the standard formulas for Hollywood superhero movies, that’s the first kind of movie crammed into this script.  The presence of Jame Franco and the comedic nature of his dialogue suggests the second movie on display, that of a Seth Rogen slacker comedy.  Then as the scene ends, Chudnofsky pulls out a strange double barreled handgun, a tick straight from the third kind of movie we’ve been exposed to: a Michel Gondry mind-trip.

The funny thing is, I feel like a couple of these movies could have been pretty good had it not been for the presence of the other two.  For one thing, I think the film could have been a pretty good comedy if left to its own devices.  There are moments in the movie that really are funny, and there are also some well staged physical gags in it like a climactic car chase that recalls the chase at the end of The Blues Brothers.  This comedy is undercut though because of the acting of Jay Chou, an Asian pop star with a limited grasp on the English language who seems to have been cast more because of his ability within action scenes than because of his ability as a comedic scene partner with Seth Rogen.  Those action scenes by the way don’t have a whole lot of dramatic weight to them, largely because Gondry keeps filling them with weird stuff that work better as absurdist imagery than Hollywood escapism.

Occasionally the good ideas that would have been in place in one of these three films do shine through, and these moments do frequently make the film a watchable mess rather than an insufferable mess.  There are individual lines, action scenes, images, and ideas that do seem rather inspired.  In particular I liked an odd social critique in the film revolving around class differences that divide Rogen’s character and Chou’s character.  That’s an idea that could make for a good movie, but the idea gets lost in the jumble that is the rest of the film.  In short this movie is a flop, a somewhat interesting flop that could develop a cult following because of its odd idiosyncrasies, but a flop nonetheless.

** out of Four

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