What’s the buzz on “The Green Hornet”? Enough to make Michel Gondry as mad as one. After the director of the new action-comedy about a masked crime fighter, a cool car and a high-kicking sidekick saw fans stampeding out of the movie’s Q&A panel at Comic-Con International this summer, Gondry lit into them with a vengeance not unlike that of the hero himself.
“Their values are Fascistic,” he seethed to the British newspaper The Guardian. “When you step into this genre, they feel it belongs to them. They want you to conform, or they won’t like you. They want the conventional. But it’s fine. The movie’s been doing very well, I think, whenever we’ve screened it to normal people.”
“Normal people” will have a chance to judge for themselves Friday, when this unconventional slacker-dude take on the character opens in theaters. Star and co-writer Seth Rogen, best known for his Judd Apatow comedies, becomes the latest in a line of Green Hornets stretching from 1930s radio to a fondly remembered, 1960s TV series starring Van Williams as Britt Reid, aka the Green Hornet, and a then-unknown Bruce Lee as his martial-artist sidekick, Kato. The show made future superstar Lee a household name, introduced the catchphrase “Let’s roll, Kato!” and gave us one of television’s most bravura instrumental themes — trumpeter Al Hirt’s rapid-fire rendition of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Flight of the Bumblebee.”
The series was also memorable for the gadget-packed Black Beauty, a customized 1966 Chrysler Imperial that outdid James Bond’s Aston Martin. This Swiss Army knife of a car had rocket launchers that swiveled in and out of sight, night-vision headlights, an exhaust device that spread ice over roads, rear-wheel brushes to sweep away tire tracks and lots more. The new movie used 29 1964-66 Imperials for all the various shots and stunts in an effort to re-create that coolness.
And coolness is key, given the sleek and finely tailored, serious and steely-eyed Green Hornet, who, in his topcoat and fedora, was the Don Draper of crime fighters. “He was very stylish,” remembers Tim Lucas, editor-publisher of the 20-year-old genre-fiction magazine Video Watchdog and a lecturer on popular culture. “He had the Hornet’s Sting” — a science-fiction-y sound wave gun — “and that fabulous car, which, to me is even more beautiful than the Batmobile.”
The new film’s gadgets, stunts and action may well compensate for all the pre-release qualms fans have felt over doughy comic actor Rogen in the title role. Rogen, perhaps wisely in that context, is keeping a relatively low profile in terms of promoting the picture, declining to speak to Newsday, even though he is also one of the film’s executive producers. Likewise not speaking are co-screenwriter Evan Goldberg and beleaguered director Gondry — all of whom saw their movie banished from a Dec. 22 holiday slot to the Siberia of January.
“Executives at Sony have insisted the latest move was made solely in order to secure more time to convert to 3-D,” wrote analyst Ray Subers of BoxOfficeMojo.com, “but moving out of a prime December spot to January doesn’t necessarily display a bid of confidence.”
It was the sixth time the movie was moved — it was originally slated for summer 2009 — and the latest setback in a long slog to bring it to the screen. The original conception in 1993, when Universal Pictures held the rights, starred George Clooney and Jason Scott Lee, who had played Bruce Lee (no relation) in that year’s “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story.” After Clooney left in 1995, the movie’s current director, Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), was hired and spent a year and a half working on a script with “RoboCop” co-writer Edward Neumeier. Mark Wahlberg was being considered for the lead. But the project languished and Gondry left.
Action star Jet Li breathed new life into the picture when he signed on as Kato in 2000. Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (“The Usual Suspects”) started writing a script. But “The Green Hornet” did not get greenlit, and Universal cut its losses in 2001.
Miramax next optioned the rights, and in 2004 the indie studio hired cult filmmaker Kevin Smith, who wanted Jake Gyllenhaal to star. But by early 2006, that project was dead.
Finally, producer Neal Moritz (“The Fast and the Furious” franchise) optioned the rights for the current Columbia Pictures flick. Rogen was aboard by July 2007, and Hong Kong action star-director Stephen Chow (“Kung Fu Hustle”) joined as co-star and director in late 2008. He bowed out as the latter over creative differences, replaced by Gondry in early 2009. Chow later abandoned the Kato role, which was taken over by heavily accented Asian singer-actor Jay Chou. Nicolas Cage came close to playing the film’s criminal kingpin, but talks broke off and Christoph Waltz signed on.
Consistent through all this has been Rogen’s vision of the Green Hornet. “He’s just, like, a rich, bored dude,” the “Pineapple Express” star said in 2007, “who has decided to become a superhero. ... He’s a billionaire and he’s a playboy, but he’s really, like, a normal guy who really has no real reason to be the Green Hornet, other than he really wants to be a superhero, which I really relate to.”
Whether “normal people” will as well, we’ll see. Let’s roll, Kato.
A GREEN HORNET TIMELINE
JAN. 31, 1936: “The Green Hornet” debuts on Detroit radio station WXYZ, created by station co-owner and managing partner George W. Trendle and writer Fran Striker, with input from director James Jewell.
APRIL 12, 1938: Radio show goes national, on the Mutual Broadcasting System. Continues on successor networks through Sept. 8, 1950. Future “60 Minutes” newsman Mike Wallace is one of the announcers during the show’s long run.
JAN. 9, 1940: Universal releases 13-chapter serial “The Green Hornet.” A 15-chapter sequel follows on Jan. 4, 1941. Future TV and film star Keye Luke plays Kato in both.
DECEMBER 1940: Helnit Publishing Co.‘s “Green Hornet Comics” No. 1-6 (cover dates Dec. 1940-Aug. 1941) becomes the first of several comic book series, including Harvey’s “Green Hornet Comics” (1942-47), Gold Key’s “The Green Hornet” (1967), Now Comics’ “The Green Hornet” and several spinoffs (1990-1993) and Dynamite Entertainment’s “Green Hornet” and spinoffs (2010).
SEPT. 10-DEC. 5, 1952: Radio show briefly returns.
SEPT. 9, 1966-JULY 14, 1967: ABC-TV series “The Green Hornet” airs. (Catch all 26 episodes Tuesday from 10 a.m.- 11 p.m. on Syfy.)
JAN. 14, 2011: Columbia Pictures releases “The Green Hornet.”