LOS ANGELES — It’s not easy being a hard-luck hero. Just ask Seth Rogen, who for the better part of four years has been trying to get “The Green Hornet” feature film off the ground despite changes to the script, the tone, the director and, well, pretty much everything except the hero’s cool customized car.
The comedy-action movie, finally, has a solid release date set for January and Rogen, who stars in the title role and co-wrote the script, brought the film to Comic-Con International in San Diego on Friday to begin a public campaign to take the film’s street credibility from zero level to hero level. You’ll have to forgive the 28-year-old Vancouver native if he moans about all the other superhero properties that fly much faster and far straighter on their way to movie theaters.
“I had a meeting with Fox the other day and they have all of the ‘X-Men: First Class’ stuff up on the wall,” Rogen said of the Marvel Comics adaptation, which didn’t even have a director until May but is now being fast-tracked for release next summer. “Look at the way that movie is happening. It could have the worst script in the world, the worst director in the world — not that it does, but it could have those things — and there’s no way the movie isn’t going to get made. Our movie was not like that.”
Rogen, sitting in a Los Angeles restaurant, sighed and then jabbed at his side salad with a fork. The actor, who shed plenty of weight to play the title role in “Hornet,” seems alternately irked and impressed by his struggle to make “Hornet,” which Rogen co-wrote with Evan Goldberg, who was also his scripting partner on the cinematic bong-hits “Superbad” and “The Pineapple Express.”
“It’s been a project of passion, and that’s the only reason we kept it going,” Rogen said.
In the movie, Rogen plays Britt Reid, a rich, shallow party animal who inherits the job of being a newspaper publisher when his father (Tom Wilkinson) dies suddenly. He also inherits the services of a mysterious employee named Kato (Taiwanese actor Jay Chou) whose martial arts and mechanical skills inspire Reid to become a masked vigilante.
Christoph Waltz, coming off Oscar-winning villainy in “Inglourious Basterds,” is the gangland bad guy, Edward James Olmos is a grizzled city editor and Cameron Diaz is Lenore “Casey” Case, an amateur gumshoe trying to puzzle out the story behind the new mystery man zooming around the city in a weaponized 1966 Imperial Crown, nicknamed the Black Beauty.
That the film will hit theaters in January is not exactly a sign of studio confidence — the conventional logic is that post-holiday weekends are the doldrums for Hollywood releases; “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” did make box-office noise last year, but it wasn’t a $130-million, 3-D special-effects film.
Even slimmed-down, Rogen isn’t the dashing, action-hero type — that’s where much of the film’s comedy comes from — but Green Hornet has a far different heritage than Batman, Spider-Man, Wolverine or the comic-book properties that moviegoers have met in recent years.
Superman introduced the modern concept of the superhero and the comic book in 1938, but two years earlier, the Hornet was already wearing his mask and fighting gangland hoods — it’s just that he was doing it on the radio dial, not the printed page. The Hornet was created by Fran Striker and George W. Trendle, and the premise was that handsome newspaper publisher Britt Reid prowled the streets at night with Kato, a driver, valet and friend who was originally portrayed as Japanese, a heritage that was changed by 1940 as the American perception of Japan changed amid the dispatches from occupied China.
The Hornet was featured in movie serials in 1940 and 1941 but never really made much impact as a comic-book character. In the modern consciousness, he is remembered primarily because of a brief stint on 1960s television and the legacy of one man: Bruce Lee. The San Francisco native who ushered in a new level of martial-arts awareness in America portrayed Kato on the ABC series “The Green Hornet,” which lasted all of 26 episodes.
Hollywood, at least, remembered the Hornet and tried to revive him repeatedly. In the 1990s, a version with George Clooney and Jason Scott Lee (no relation to Bruce Lee) never materialized, and in the past decade filmmaker Kevin Smith was on-again, off-again with the project. Most interestingly, director Michel Gondry was attached to a late 1990s version, so his struggles with the Hornet precede those of Rogen.
Gondry, who grew up in France, was drawn to the Hornet character first by the aura around Lee and his life and then, later, he felt the property was one that would allow him to make a film that was decidedly not art house. “My archetypes of a great movie are ‘RoboCop’ and ‘Back to the Future,’” Gondry said. “Those are maybe my two favorites.”
For Rogen, the appeal of a “Hornet” movie was to put a volatile friendship in the center of an action-comedy that had superhero layers on top of that.
“The two guys who try to be superheroes, and their own relationship is really the biggest thing they have to overcome, that was always the idea,” Rogen said. “People are trying to kill them and all that, but if they can figure out how to work together, then the rest is fine.”
Stephen Chow, the star and director of “Kung Fu Hustle,” signed on in September 2008 to direct the film and to play Kato, but his version of funny didn’t sync up with Rogen and Goldberg’s. The arrival of Gondry in February 2009 got the film back on track, and Rogen credited the filmmaker with bringing interesting father-son elements to the story.
“He has a son, and that gave him some insights, and we really expanded on all of that,” Rogen said. “Also, while keeping in the tone of this realistic movie, we needed moments that kind of crack it open and visually explore things that don’t 100 percent fall into the realistic world. It’s — more than any of our movies — not a strict comedy. It was hard to get to this point, but now we’re here, and it’s great.”