Last year there was a great movie about an ordinary guy who decides to become a masked vigilante; it was called “Kick-Ass.” Now we have the latest version of “The Green Hornet,” and it turns out to be a frat-boy take on the same idea that might well have been titled “Smart-Ass.”
Of course, it would have been courting disaster to revive the old masked hero—wealthy newspaper owner Britt Reid, who fought crime alongside his houseboy Kato—in the serious form in which he appeared on radio beginning in 1936 and in theatrical serials in the 1940s. And the high (or, in this case, low) camp television reboot of 1966, created in the aftermath of the “Batman” phenomenon (and remembered only for the presence of the young Bruce Lee as Kato), would hardly have been an apt model. So after a long gestation the filmmakers have opted to fashion a “Hornet” by and for the YouTube generation, a smart-alecky sendup that provides the barrage of fights, car chases and explosions the target audience of adolescent males demands but decks it all out in the jokey, goofball style familiar from the products of the Apatow factory and its innumerable imitators.
Much of your reaction to this retelling will depend on your attitude toward Seth Rogen, who co-wrote the script with his partner Evan Goldberg in the loose, cheeky fashion of their earlier “Superbad” and who plays Reid in the same slacker mode he’s employed in all his roles. Hs Reid, however, is a rich slacker with daddy issues: his father James (Tom Wilkinson) was a hard-nosed newspaper mogul who pretty much ignored his son except to criticize him.
But when James suddenly dies and Britt inherits his empire, he’s at a loss about what to do until he enlists Kato (Jay Chou), upgraded from houseboy to James’s mechanic and general master-of-all-trades in a late-night lark to deface his father’s statue that turns into a fight against a street gang threatening a young couple. The experience so invigorates Reid that he suggests that he and Kato keep up their work, challenging the reign of crime lord Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz) over Los Angeles and using the family newspaper to promote their activities—mostly through the canny Kato’s inventions, which transform their car into a marvel of combat, and his martial-arts ability, which allows him to defeat small armies of opponents without breaking a sweat. (The lumpy Reid pretty much follows along as space-filler, until he suddenly blossoms at the end.)
Most of “The Green Hornet” is devoted to the interplay between Rogen and Chou, which has the loose feel of the camaraderie of the kids in “Superbad” and the male roomies of “Knocked Up,” though toward the close it erupts into a fight that, in its length and ferocity, comes across as more nasty than amusing. Still, if you appreciate Rogen’s motor-mouthed persona, which changes little from movie to movie, you’ll find their scenes together amusing. (If, on the other hand, you agree with some of us that he’s more obnoxious than funny, you’ll feel differently.) Chou, meanwhile, is an agreeable-looking fellow with an easygoing air but little acting ability, and his fight scenes are accomplished with lots of “Matrix”-style CGI that masks what appears to be minimal fighting skills.
Of course, a picture like this can’t be a two-man show, but the others in the cast seem like afterthoughts. Cameron Diaz, cast as Reid’s new secretary Lenore—after whom both he and Kato lust—is mere window dressing, as is Edward James Olmos, as the old hand at the newspaper; and David Harbour exudes smarminess as the young D.A. Then there’s Christoph Waltz as the villain Chudhofsky. It took Max von Sydow years to descend to the level of playing Ming the Merciless, but the Austrian Oscar-winner has skipped ahead to a similar lip-smacking part immediately, and while he’s obviously enjoying the chance to slum, the part obviously doesn’t tax his talent. The ubiquitous James Franco shows up in an opening scene-setter with Waltz as a rival crook. He’s obviously having fun chewing the scenery, too.
Michel Gondry might not be the first person you’d think of as the director of an action comedy, but he handles the assignment well enough, choreographing the big set-pieces well enough and, helped by editor Michael Tronick, keeping the scenario clear. He does toss in a few of the glitzy cinematic bits he’s known for (a split-screen sequence, a surrealistic flashback montage toward the close—which also serves as an overall explanation of the contorted plot); but overall his approach is more conventional than one might have expected. John Schwartzman’s cinematography is colorful and fairly crisp despite the post-production 3D conversion (which once again darkens the images to an unfortunate degree), and James Newton Howard’s score punches things up satisfactorily).
Purists may object to this refashioning of “The Green Hornet” for the tastes of irony-drenched twenty-first century high-schoolers. But surely there can’t be many of them around. But while on its own lowbrow terms the movie may work well enough, “Kick-Ass” outpoints this “Smart-Ass” cousin by a wide margin.