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Non-Review Review: Green Hornet

Green Hornet is an interesting film, if only because it’s hard to figure out the potential audience. It adopts a brutally cynical approach to the types of superhero films that have been released over the past few years, while remaining steeped in their trappings. It’s a comedy, but it doesn’t venture too far into slapstick or laugh-out-loud moments (though there are more than a couple). Instead, it seems to smirk its way through the movie, deconstructing the sort of plots, characters and dialogue that superhero films give us, but never completely tilting its hand. It’s hard to tell if this is a parody of a standard superhero film, or a straight-forward example of one – the movie fluctuates between the two extremes, but never really picks one and engages full throttle.

A bomb...

Of course, Green Hornet seems like a strange choice for a Michael Gondry film. I never would have seen the director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind stepping up to helm an adaptation of the camp sixties television show, itself an adaptation of a radio serial. That said, it probably isn’t a bigger surprise than seeing David Gordon Green helm Your Highness or Pineapple Express after George Washington, but it still seems slightly surreal to see Gondry directing a film with ridiculous action sequences and big explosions, starring Seth Rogan and Cameron Diaz.

Still, the film has its charms, and I couldn’t help but warm to it a little bit, even as I never really found anything to latch on to. You can feel Gondry and Rogan gently poking at the superhero genre, and having a bit of fun at its expense. That the movie so subtly lampoons the genre that it could almost be considered a straight example of it is a very strange sensation. The movie is the ery definition of “quirky”, and even though I found myself smiling at it, I’d be hard-pressed to recommend it.

Sidekick to the face?

I think part of the problem is that it’s never really clear when the movie is being funny or when it is being serious. The lead character, for example, is a spoilt and shallow manchild who never grew up, but he’s also genuinely (if ineptly) heroic. Britt Reid, as brought to life by Seth Rogan, is very much a superhero for the Judd Apatow generation. He’s a loser who has never done anything with his life, but the movie offers us the slightest glimpse of human decency beneath his selfish and pampered exterior.

While he first dons the identity of the Green Hornet to deface his father’s statue, he does intervene to stop a mugging while greatly outnumbered – it’s the first time in the film that Britt doesn’t seem like an entitled douche, doing something insanely stupid and yet fundamentally decent. Though the film attempts to offer Britt Reid as something of a deconstruction of the conventional superhero it never seems to follow through on that sort of damning criticism. The movie can’t seem to decide if we’re supposed to like Britt or loathe him, and the whole movie suffers as a result.

Messed-up superheroes...

After all, there seems to be very little “heroic” about Britt’s antics. He is a white privileged brat who resorts to his adventures out of a sense of existential boredom, rather than any altruistic intent. “I think we’re in the ‘hood, Kato,” he anxiously states at one point, as he gets nervous about his little attention-grabbing escapades. This is a guy who doesn’t know anything about the world outside the insulated little sphere where he grew up. He doesn’t dress up and fight crime to “do the right thing” or because “with great power comes great responsibility.” He does it because he thinks it’s cool.

It’s selfish and shallow, and a strong condemnation of any sort of vigilante activity. It’s hard not to see Rogan’s take on Britt Reid as an attack on those sorts of millionaire superheroes in general, characters like Bruce Wayne. His first heroic adventure sees him destroying a cop car with little regard for the safety of the officer inside. Later on, Britt and Kato high-five one another as they smash up another cop car. It almost seems like Gondry is having a bit of fun at the expense of the car chase towards the tail end of Batman Begins, in which our hero similarly tramples over the forces of law and order, except here Gondry calls him on it. Britt’s adventures are just criminal vandalism and reckless negligence writ large.

Mask-erade...

And, like Bruce Wayne, his political and personal power allow him to vindicate his own actions. Britt essentially turns his father’s newspaper into his alter-ego’s press office – perhaps a cynical comment on Clark Kent’s relationship to Superman. The implication is clear: Britt Reid is wealthy and powerful enough to turn this little side project of his into a big deal, and is able to legitimise his own reckless adventuring. Gondry and Rogan shrewdly note the class warfare implications of superheroes – how often the genre reverts to the rich legitimising violence against the poor, and using their control of political capital, money, or media to vindicate it.

It’s a pretty brutal deconstruction of the male power fantasy of the superhero, which makes for a very compelling film, and perhaps explains what attracted Gondry to the film – I honestly don’t think any film has so efficiently eviscerated the notion of the superhero, while being so thoroughly pleasant and insightful while doing so. Gondry’s film never seems malicious or aggressive, it’s just very thoughtful and clever. It’s a unique examination of the genre. Even when Britt tries to be genre savvy and avoiding the rather obvious flaws of the superhero genre (by posing as a bad guy), Gondry points out that there’s no way that innocent lives aren’t caught in the crossfire as Britt searches for his own personal vindication. There’s very little way that Britt’s flouting of law and order can be a good thing.

Being Franco...

However, the message gets slightly mixed up when the movie softens its attitude towards Britt. I don’t mind the idea of an unlikeable lead character, but I find it immensely frustrating when the movie jumps back and forth between portraying Britt as a lazy, inexperienced, talentless and selfish hack lost in pursuit of his own satisfaction, and presenting him a genuinely heroic figure. We’re told, for example, that he used to get in fights at school for protecting his fellow students from bullies. “I was trying to help!” he insists, recollecting that he was stopping a bunch of guys picking on a girl, a scene not too dissimilar from the one that establishes him as a hero.

In doing so, it seems like Gondry and Rogan romanticise Britt just a little, and so the sharp edge of their commentary is lost, just a little bit. I think the Green Hornet’s biggest problem is that it lacks sting – it feels as if it has some legitimate problems with the genre, and yet wants to play into it anyway. It’s a shame, because there’s a lot of wit there, and a lot of food for thought. It’s just odd to see it packaged in a film that spends so much of its time being relatively conventional.

A double-barrelled (shot) gun...

Similarly, Gondry has a great deal of fun with the type of superhero nonsense that we typically see, allowing Kato to open a pair of beers in a gratuitously funky slow-motion sort of way, as if to parody the types of feats that characters in films like these can accomplish. On the other hand, Gondry actually handles the action scenes remarkably well, with “Kato-vision” providing some genuinely impressive kung-fu sequences. Even when the director goes over-the-top (like jamming two huge sticks into a character’s eyes), it’s still hard to discern the difference between the action here and in any other film.

All this is disappointing, because the script by Rogan and Evan Goldberg is sharp. It lampoons just about every aspect of superhero films, right down to the sort of clunky expositional dialogue that many throw at us, as they try to act out an origin, an original adventure, and a satisfying conclusion in an hour-and-a-half. “Here we are again,” Britt’s father states, very clearly providing context to the audience. “Sent home again after another schoolyard fight.” He may as well have used “as you know…”

All good on the hood...

Edward James Olmos’ character introduces himself with the line, “I’ve been your father’s most trusted colleague for twenty-five years.” It’s brilliant, because it’s delivered so deadpan that there’s no way the actors and writers aren’t having a laugh, but  it’s so very clearly not the way that people talk to one another – it’s just an awkward way of info-dumping for the audience, which most major blockbusters seem to think of as idiots. One of the best jokes in the film has Britt’s inner monologue craftily deducing what the bad guy pretty much just told him. The bad guy then remarks that he’s been sitting there for five minutes with a dopey expression on his face.

There are other nice touches, like James Franco’s douchebag meth dealer (who claims he’s made it because “I got sh!tloads of glass everywhere, I got a see-through piano!”) and Christoph Waltz’s mid-life crisis gangster. Waltz continues to bring a wonderful whimsical charm to roles that probably wouldn’t be half as fascinating without him, although it is interesting to imagine the intensity that Nicolas Cage would have brought to the film. That said, I think that Waltz portraying an efficient and effective and non-flamboyant criminal overlord (a “Disco Santa”, as he is described) is probably more satisfying. “You said I was boring,” he remarks to a victim, full of insecurity. “My gun has two barrels, that’s not boring!”Nicolas Cage is great actor, but I’m yet to be convinced he can portray boring.

Kicking a Hornet's nest...

In fairness, there are some nice moments peppered throughout the film. I love the bit where the Hornet wanders around doing his Batman impersonation, intimating subdued gangsters (“who do you work for?”), but having to try several times to find one capable of answering. Similarly, there’s a nice small role for Edward Furlong as a meth distributor who has his lab messed up by the Hornet. “You broke my lab,” he remarks. “I’m sorry about that,” Britt concedes, before ordering Kato to fire up the flamethrower. I love the irony that their race to print some crucial information about the bad guy involves the pair severely damaging the newspaper’s printing press. A subtle commentary on the death of print media? You decide!

I’ll concede that I didn’t love the Green Hornet, and I can see why it failed to find an audience. It’s aiming for a very particular “sweet spot”, trying to find an audience that can enjoy silly superhero action, but also enjoys seeing it picked apart. I think the film suffers from wavering too much – it never decides if it’s a straight-up superhero film, or a deconstruction of one. As a result, it’s no wonder that the audience was confused.

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3 Responses

  1. I feel like The Green Hornet was a “normal” superhero movie that was undercut by its own deconstruction, rather than the other way around.

    SPOILERS

    In the climax, they essentially kill most of the villains in cold blood. And yet the movies tone seemed to be that this was supposed to be fun. Now, tonal irony can be effective, but for whatever reason it didn’t work for me.

    /SPOILERS

    I think deconstructing certain aspects of superheroes is a great idea for any superhero movie. Kick Ass or even The Dark Knight, to a lesser extent, did this very well. However, Green Hornet should have ended either as a complete reconstruction like Kick Ass or as a complete deconstruction like Watchmen. Ending on a completely ambivalent thematic note seemed like a mistake and wasted opportunity.

    While I loved Jay Chou as Kato, Seth Rogen seemed completely miscast as Britt Reid. I say this as a big Seth Rogen fan, but I just don’t think he had the acting chops for this particular role. Overall, the film was a huge disappointment for me personally, considering I’m a big fan of everyone involved.

    • Yep. I am fairly certain that they killed at least one cop during their hilarious escapes, which immediately makes it impossible for the film to just revert to a standard superhero at the end. They’ve opened the box, and flagged these flaws and issues, so you either have to rationalise and reconstruct (as Nolan and Vaughn did) or follow them to their natural conclusion (as Alan Moore and Frank Miller did).

  2. Overall, the film was a total mess but a fun mess with humor and some pretty cool-looking action. It’s a surprise though that Rogen was such a dick in this considering he’s so damn lovable in everything else he does. Either way, good review Darren.

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