The Green Hornet

Superhero movies have a way of sucking the credibility out of Hollywood actors – even those who didn’t have much to begin with.

Brandon Routh’s career stocks plummeted after donning the undies-outside-your-pants-look in the dreadful Superman Returns (2006). Billy Zane is still red in the face from squeezing into the purple suit in The Phantom (1998). Halle Berry destroyed in one fell swoop the cred she garnered from her 2002 Oscar win for Monsters Ball with the hairy, screwy Catwoman (2004).

Val Kilmer and George Clooney were lucky to bounce back from two Joel Schumacher Batman movies, and just when it appeared as if Tobey Maguire’s rep would emerge from the Spider-Man series untarnished – even after an ambitious upside down pash with Kirsten Dunst – he was finally rendered the fool in Sam Raimi’s WTF? Spider-Man 3 (2007).

Christopher Reeve may have become well loved for playing Superman in the 70’s and 80’s, largely because comic book superhero movies back then were still considered novelties, but he was never able to shirk his image as the high-flying hero – even when real life confined him to a wheelchair. And the less said about Ben Affleck in Daredevil (2003), the better.

There are, however, more positive examples. Despite a crude impersonation of a 50 a day smoker Christian Bale survived Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008), largely due to the skills of writer/director Christopher Nolan. But the most impressive superhero incarnation in recent years belongs to Robert Downey Jnr’s ice cool performances in the Iron Man movies (2008 and 2010). Why? Because Downey Jnr was not just allowed to retain his signature style – the smug too-cool-for-school renegade – but encouraged to play up to it.

It is in this context that Michel Gondry’s The Green Hornet arrives: the dawn, perhaps, of the comic book superhero movie that bends to its star’s persona.

Lackadaisical everyman Seth Rogen dons the iconic green mask and his cred in Hollywood has gone up, not down, because the movie plays to his strengths. As well it should: Rogen, whose persona has always tilted much more towards geeky than cool, was a co-writer and producer. He was never going to cut it as a straight crime fighting hunk no matter how many roids, bench presses and dumb bells indulged in beforehand.

Rogen is Brit Reid, the slothful son of a media magnate who passes away in iffy circumstances. Thirsty for coffee, Reid rehires one of the many staff members he rashly fired – Kato (Jay Chou) – and discovers Kato’s martial arts expertise and uncanny ability to create Q-esque inventions like bullet proof cars and guns that fire coma-inducing gas. Kind of the guy you want to be around in a tight spot.

The two became a crime fighting team through a mixture of circumstance and for the hell of it, mostly – and refreshingly – the latter. Soon they’re ruffling the feathers of a Russian drug lord (Christoph Waltz, unforgettable as Tarantino’s loquacious Nazi in Inglourious Basterds) who reacts by executing everybody in the city wearing green. By the grace of God, it wasn’t St Patrick’s Day.

Shoehorned into the caped crusader narrative is a screwy subplot about the press standing up to politicians and the powers that be for What Is Right.

The gimmick is that Rogen’s Green Hornet is an indolent blundering fool and all the duo’s skills reside inside the brains and muscle fibres of Kato. The set up is reminiscent of Thom Eberhardt 1988’s action/comedy Without a Clue, in which Michael Caine played an incompetent Sherlock Holmes and Ben Kingsley was Watson — the true, uncelebrated genius who never looked as good in front of the cameras.

The Green Hornet’s zippy pace and Rogen’s winning performance keep the movie watchable, but those who don’t dig the teddy bear star’s sissy stoner demeanour will probably find its reliance on him irritating.

Like many of Michel Gondry’s films (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Human Nature, Be Kind Rewind etcetera) you’re never sure when he’s going to spill into hyper reality or aesthetic looniness. While Gondry hasn’t forfeited his distinctive style in The Green Hornet, there is nevertheless a strong sense that engineering such a broadly accessible movie has put harsh constraints on his artistic sensibilities and, more importantly, his playful style.

Most of the jokes connect, the plot doesn’t dilly daddle and the use of 3D, while forgettable, has one scene that demonstrates the technology’s capabilities for sassy split screen techniques. The pace and momentum of The Green Hornet work just fine, but with Gondry and Rogen at the helm the movie leaves an unmistakable aftertaste ripe with the flavour of squandered opportunity.

The Green Hornet’s Australian theatrical release date: January 20, 2010.

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