[14 January 2011]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, / I take a look at my life and realize there’s nuttin’ left.” En route to an imminent crime scene, the Green Hornet (Seth Rogen) and Kato (Jay Chou) start singing along with their car radio. “Cause I’ve been blastin’ and laughin’ so long that / Even my mama thinks that my mind is gone.”
Who would have thought Coolio—so self-serious, so oversold 16 years ago—would be resurrected so perversely, so loudly, and yet… so effectively? As the wannbe heroes roll through the dark streets of Los Angeles in their vintage Chrysler Imperial, the Black Beauty, they’re fooling themselves and you know it. This makes “Gangster’s Paradise” seem apt as well as goofy, as it typifies the movie’s out-of-joint tone and strange rhythms.
Nothing here quite fits expectations. The Green Hornet is sometimes funny, sometimes even sharp. But more often, it’s odd and disjointed, lumbering and uncertain. It seems, as Michel Gondry calls it, “a movie of many people,”, less a coherent story than a collection of moments, some weird and compelling, others instantly forgettable, and still others just distracting. This disjointedness makes The Green Hornet resemble Gondry’s previous films—Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep—but it’s not always clear how or when the effect is deliberate, or when someone from the studio insisted on a standard superheroic insert.
It may be that in an experiment of this sort, who decided what when is not so important. Even when the movie pursues typical plot points—the origin of the Green Hornet, the invention of some gizmo like the Hornet Gas Gun—it’s never quite typical, and that is to its credit. An early scene shows a young Britt (Joshua Chandler Erenberg) in his father’s office, suggesting that his daddy issues will drive him to become an offbeat, slightly disturbed superhero. And dad (Tom Wilkinson) is indeed a monster, intent on running the city’s biggest newspaper, Daily Sentinel, determined to make his young son a “man” worthy of his birthright (that is, eventually overseeing some 750,000 employees and a righteous journalistic enterprise). When the boy protests that he’s “tried” to defend himself against a bully at school, dad barks, “Trying doesn’t matter if you always fail.” Grrr. The boy is further traumatized when his father pulls the head off Britt’s favorite superhero action figure.
This leads directly to the next phase in Britt’s arrested development: he does his best to spend his father’s money and also annoy him, partying and serially bedding pretty girls, until the next trauma, when dad dies of a bee sting. Duly upset and confused, Britt soon realizes that being on his own is not quite what it sounds like: in fact, daily life on the estate and at the office depends on employees, as Britt is reminded when he learns that his decision to fire the domestic staff summarily results in the loss of his favorite morning ritual—a coffee with a swirly milk design.
Turns out this is the work of Kato, whom Britt rushes to rehire. He learns that Kato is something of a genius in multiple fields: not only has he invented the super-machine that makes the coffee, he also customizes the numerous cars in the old man’s collection, invents weapons and gizmos, and oh yes, is a martial arts expert. The boys bond over their shared love of mechanics and resentment of the late Mr. Reid (who was, they agree, a “dick”), and an accidental encounter with a gang of hooligans.
As they save a couple from these bad guys, Kato and Britt discover an unexpected calling. They like superheroes, and even want to be them, but they decide to put their own spin on the job: they’ll pretend to be bad but do good, confusing both cops and crooks—and perhaps viewers who are unfamiliar with the 1930s radio show characters or the 1940s movie serial or the 1960s TV show (which memorably starred Bruce Lee as Kato, here referenced in a sketch by the new Kato).
Yes, the idea is silly and unnecessarily complicated, but it generates something like a theme: as Britt heads over to the Sentinel, insisting the paper run sensational headlines on the Green Hornet, headlines he thinks will make him seem serious but, as Coolio aficionados know, only make him seem ridiculous. And so the movie has a chance to make a point about what news media should be doing, a point embodied by the earnest editor, Axford (Edward James Olmos), who advises against Britt’s crass and tabloidy instincts.
Britt’s ignorance drives The Green Hornet, as he not only abuses the newspaper but also tries to seduce his new secretary Lenore (Cameron Diaz), who is supposed to be brainy and resourceful, but also, as is the custom in superhero movies, wears tight dresses and short shorts. Lenore also serves the usual purpose in a movie focused on two homosocially inclined buddies, which is to ensure you know they’re straight, as Kato also has a crush on her. But you’re also reminded of her fundamental irrelevance to their relationship, which they spend most of the film working out.
In this, the film is alternately refreshingly self-aware and awfully slow, drawing from its well-known source material in order to make meta-jokes about the genre. And so: the movie notes repeatedly that though the Green Hornet has a name and a reputation (among cops and criminals), his “unnamed sidekick” doesn’t get the credit he deserves—for his inventions and fighting skills. As the duo argues about whether they’re partners, Kato refuses to be identified as Britt’s “man,” recalling a concern for Bruce Lee and his fans, who were disappointed by the fabulous martial arts star’s reduction to an often dull supporting role in the TV series—not to mention the racism inherent in the designation, not exactly underlined here, but not ignored either (Britt remains blissfully unaware that Shanghai is not in Japan).
These spats lead eventually to a knock-down fight, which is less flat-out actiony or comedic than it is protracted and odd. It also recalls the tension between Jack Black and Mos Def in Be Kind Rewind, a film this one evokes more generally in its rethinking of generic clichés—or at least its tweaking of them. The villains are regular enough—a secretly corrupt DA (David Harbour) and a cartoonish crime lord Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz), who tangles with a couple of lesser bad guys, played by James Franco and Eddie Furlong—and help to ensure the film is punctuated by violent action scenes, car chases and explosions, shootouts and fights, some enhanced by “Kato Vision.”
This gimmicky use of split screens, red filter, and slow-motion underlines what’s obvious—Kato sees the world differently than the rest of us. Still, he knows, “We’ve been spending most our lives / Living in the Gangsta’s Paradise.”