Movie Review: “The Green Hornet” (2011)
LET’S ROLL, SPOILERS
The Green Hornet has always been the lamest of superheroes. He was created in 1936 by George W. Trendle, co-owner and managing partner of Detroit radio station WXYZ, as a modern update of Trendle’s previous creation, the Lone Ranger. Like the Ranger, the Hornet wore a mask, fought crime (often posing as a criminal himself), and relied upon a faithful companion: a Japanese valet named Kato, who became a Filipino valet after Pearl Harbor and a Korean valet for the 1940’s movie serials. The Hornet’s real identity, debonair newspaper published Britt Reid, was even posited as the grand nephew of John Reid, the Lone Ranger’s real identity.
I first came to know the character through syndicated re-runs of the 1966-67 TV series, starring Van Williams as The Green Hornet, and Bruce Lee as Kato, which was created in the wake of yet another successful series: the camp classic, “Batman.” This Hornet had a couple of things going for him. He rode in a cool, black Mustang; he looked cool in his black mask and fedora; his theme song, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” was cool, while his sidekick, Kato, wearing his own black mask and chauffeur’s cap, was way cool.
But even as kids we knew something was wrong: The Green Hornet didn’t do anything. Kato drove the car. Kato was the bad-ass in fights. Basically the Green Hornet was his own Robin. He was the superhero overshadowed by the sidekick.
Thus the obvious task before screenwriters Seth Rogen and Even Goldberg (“Pineapple Express”), director Michael Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), and Sony Pictures Entertainment: How to update this lame character for 2011 audiences?
Their answer? Make him lamer.
It’s not a bad answer, actually. They just don’t go far enough with it.
This Britt Reid (Rogen) is the spoiled son of a crusading newspaper publisher, James Reid (Tom Wilkinson), who dies from an allergic reaction to a bee sting. Brit is put in charge of “The Daily Sentinel” but he’s hardly read it. What has he done with his life? Not much. He likes to party with beautiful women. Who doesn’t? He likes beer. Ditto. He’s basically an everyman with gobs of money. He also likes a nice cappuccino in the morning with a leaf design in the foam. But the morning after his father’s funeral, the leaf is gone and the coffee’s shite, and after throwing a tantrum he learns that a servant named Kato (Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou), whom he fired the day before, always made his morning cappuccino. So he hires him back. That’s how they meet.
Kato, it turns out, is not just a master barista. He’s a martial arts master, a scientific master, a guy who redesigns the father’s black mustang with the material of shark tanks. Reid can barely keep up. “I was born in Shanghai,” Kato says. “Love Japan,” Reid responds. Not a bad in-joke for a movie that gives its Chinese character a Japanese name.
Their first night-time excursion is collegiate and Oedipal, and recalls an episode of “The Simpsons”: James Reid was buried next to a giant statue of himself; so the son, still fuming that daddy was considered a great man, cuts off the head of the statue. Then he witnesses an attack on a nice couple by a gang of cackling idiots. He confronts them and runs. They’re about to kill him. But Kato to the rescue.
Then the cops chase them from the scene. But Kato’s souped-up car to the rescue.
And we’re on. Britt has his grand idea to “pose like villains and act like heroes.” He also decides to be his own J. Jonah Jameson: He will turn this character who decapitated his father’s statue, seen on grainy, green footage, into a villain. And he will call him: The Green ... Bee!
Kato to the rescue again with a better name. The Green Hornet is born.
The two take on the L.A. underworld, run by a man named Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz, in his first role, and it’s a thankless one, since winning best supporting actor for “Inglourious Basterds). Reid as the Green Hornet gets in a couple of blows now and then, but it’s mostly Kato, as fighter, or Kato, as designer of high-tech weapons and cars, who gets the work done. But Reid never seems to notice this. He still thinks he’s the hero. He’s as deluded as Ronnie Barnhart, Rogen’s character from “Observe and Report.” Is this the new Rogen role? The guy who’s scary in his delusions? The ostensible hero who isn’t really a hero?
At one point, Kato designs a gas gun but only makes one for Reid. When Reid questions him on this, Kato implies (rightly) that he doesn’t need one. Now it’s Reid who chafes under the idea (a correct one) that he’s the weaker half of the duo. So he promptly shows his worth by shooting himself in the face with the gas gun. He’s out for 11 days.
Should we look at their relationship symbolically—as a backdrop to geopolitics? The American is rich, talentless and stupid, but with a sense of privilege. The Chinese guy knows everything, can fight anyone, and can even make a damn good cappuccino, but he has to listen to the American. Who thinks he’s Japanese. No way the filmmakers weren’t aware of this dynamic.
A shame they didn’t press this theme. Instead, what breaks the two up is ... wait for it ... a girl, Lenore Case (Cameron Diaz), a temp who becomes full-time secretary to Reid because she knows things like “how much trouble newspapers are in these days.” Both men make plays for her: Reid obviously and thus humorously; Kato subtly and thus creepily. She’s not interested in either.
There are grand, meaningless subplots. Was James Reid in the pocket of the corrupt local D.A. (David Harbour)? Will Kato accept a $1 million assignment to kill Britt Reid? Blah blah blah.
Reid’s stupidity is magnified through two laugh-out-loud bits. At a sushi bar with the corrupt D.A., we get a high-tech flashback of Reid piecing everything together. At which point the corrupt D.A. says something like, “I can see by the stupid look you’ve had on your face for the last five minutes that you’ve finally pieced everything together.” It recalls, like the decapitated statue, “The Simpsons,” specifically Homer.
At the same time, Reid manages to get the corrupt D.A.’s confession recorded, and he and Kato, reunited, are chased back to The Daily Sentinel, where Reid can upload the audio onto the Internet. The damage done to the building so he can perform this simple task is insane. But he’s doing it. As Kato holds off the bad guys, we get the traditional “Hollywood bar of upload,” with the hero saying, “C’mon, c’mon,” to technology he doesn’t understand. In the audience, I’m thinking, “How can they make this interesting? What can we get at the other end that’s unique?” Answer? A pop-up window: NO DATA RECORDED. “I’m so stupid!” Reid says, slapping himself in the forehead.
Unfortunately the movie fudges Reid’s Homer Simpson moments by allowing him Kato’s power at the end: In a moment of crisis, time slows down, and, boom boom, he is able to take care of the bad guys. What took Kato a lifetime of training, Reid simply stumbles into. It’s the American way.
Question: Is all of this simply humorous or truly subversive? I.e., are the filmmakers pandering to the audience (“Idiots like you can be heroes!”) or are they trying to slap sense into them (“Your hero is an idiot, Idiot!”)?
My hero of the film, anyway, doesn’t wear a mask. He’s Axford (Edward James Olmos), an editor at The Daily Sentinel, who, after James Reid dies, is forced to watch the newspaper he’s worked on for decades, and which is barely surviving as is, become the plaything of three people who know nothing of journalism: Reid, Kato and Lenore, who is suddenly holding forth at edit meetings as if she’s Ben Bradlee. He is made redundant. At this point he tries to set Reid straight, and begins: “I know you think my experience ain’t worth shit...” Truer words by the American workingman to his boss were never spoken.
Earlier incarnations: 1940 (left) and 1966. The updated version contains two homages to Bruce Lee, the 1966 Kato. Can you name them?