Thanks to the cheek of those both in front of and behind the lens, what could have been a typical costumed crusader effort turns into one of 2011's early delights.
Michel Gondry is our greatest living cinematic deconstructionist. Better than Quentin Tarantino and his reference heavy riffing, the formidable music video ace has carved out a unique niche in modern moviemaking. From his work with Charlie Kaufman (Human Nature, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) to his own unusual takes on the RomCom (The Science of Sleep) and documentary (Dave Chappelle's Block Party, Thorn in the Heart) he's like a walking example of the subversive "swedeing" concept employed in his ode to the influence of home video, Be Kind, Rewind. So it's no surprise then that his latest effort, the sunny super hero romp The Green Hornet is more about countermanding expectations within the genre than embracing them outright. What is stunning is how funny and fresh it all seems.
Co-written by star Seth Rogen and much more of a slacker buddy picture than an out-an-out action spectacle, Hornet centers on misfit playboy Britt Reed who's a constant disappointment to his publisher father (Tom Wilkinson). When tragedy strikes, the arrested adolescent is placed in charge of his family's massive empire yet still can't figure out a way to stop squandering his potential. Discovering that his mandatory morning coffee is made by recently fired mechanic - and martial arts expert - Kato (Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou), Britt gets a bright idea.
As a kind of payback for his father's failed parenting, he will become a masked vigilante. The difference, however, is that instead of posing as the good guys, he and Kato will act as villains, avoiding suspicion while conquering the criminals. While initially viable, the duo eventually discover a few problems with their plan - the biggest being LA crime overlord Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz) who doesn't like newcomers invading his well-established territory. With the help of newly hired journalist/ secretary Lenore Case (Cameron Diaz) and the reigning District Attorney, Britt and Kato hope to take down the hood from both the inside and out. Of course, it will be harder - and more dangerous - than they think.
Irreverent and irresistible, The Green Hornet is a laugh out loud riff on our current cultural obsession with the comic book film. It's a jaunty, jokey assault on the sanctity of such spectacles and further proof that, when done correctly, any genre is ripe for a self-referential spoof. Those reverent to the source and who sour at the notion of Reed and his Asian compatriot treated with anything other than dignity and respect should probably avoid this anarchic take. While the basics are in place, Rogen and co-writer Evan Goldberg are more interested in exploring the humorous dynamic between their mismatched partners in crime-fighting than working up an operatic origin story. Again, they lay a great foundation, but then instantly avoid such categorical shortcomings to focus on the funny business.
Audiences used to such stiff F/X monoliths should also be wary. We're just not used to laughing at our heroes. But Rogen and Chou have such a great chemistry that it radiates off the screen, creating the kind of classic cinematic partnership that is impossible to purposefully manufacture. From fighting the bad guys to battling each other, their breezy byplay, filled with forced cool and eclectic charms, solidly centers the film. From there, Gondry works his maniacal magic, tweaking convention while staying strictly within the situational stereotypes demanded. We get the mandatory fist and firefights, but instead of going overboard with stilted CGI, the director opts for a more practical approach. This means that the vehicle mayhem has much more heft while the clever "Kato-Vision" stylistic flourish offers equal impact.
But Gondry doesn't like to leave well enough alone. He wants The Green Hornet to not only break the mold, but smash it into a billion different pieces that he can paw through and play with. As stated before, he applies some very frilly flash to many of the hand-to-hand moments, giving the characters a crazy internal plotting system that sees stream of consciousness imagery ramrodded into search and destroy strategizing. He also makes fun of the format, having the last act confrontation take place in an skyscraper office building, even if The Green Hornet and Kato are using their car - the impressive Black Beauty - as their only means of defense. Sure, it's all hyperbolic and over the top, but that's the joy of this film. Instead of feeling like a pen and ink sermon, its more akin to cracking open a future favorite 'funny book' for the very first time.
As for the performances, Rogen is actually very good as Britt Reed, balancing the needs of the proposed hero arc with the shaggy dog dynamic he's cultivated over the years. Even more impressive is Chou's Kato. A combination of Bruce Lee swagger and young man vulnerability, he's the perfect semi-serious accompaniment to his partner's clueless camaraderie. Diaz comes in about halfway through, and while engaging, is given little to do and other supporting players such as Edward James Olmos appear poised for further exploration in the almost certain sequels. But it's Oscar winner Waltz who really wins us over as Chudnofsky. Self conscious, bitter, and a bit nerdy, he's the antithesis of everything we've come to expect from a scoundrel. Oh sure, he can kill with the best of them, but it's the moments when he's kvetching over his wardrobe choices and name that cement his unique status.
Then it's all filtered through Gondry's gloriously goofy aesthetic, and the results reconfirm your faith in the more magical element of the artform. The Green Hornet is that rarity within a junk January setting - a fine film being unceremoniously dumped with hopes of hitting its target audience. Such inane counterprogramming may limit its returns (even with the unnecessary 3D retrofit which really adds nothing), but not its many joys. Thanks to the cheek of those both in front of and behind the lens, what could have been a typical costumed crusader effort turns into one of 2011's early delights.