The Green Hornet
Directed by Michel Gondry
Runtime: 108 min.
Van Williams, the darkly gorgeous star of TV’s 1966 action series The Green Hornet, was also stiff. The incognito superhero role seldom used Williams’ dazzling smile except as public figure Britt Reid, who embodied the straight-arrow WASP handsomeness Hollywood idealized until the counterculture revolution of the ’60s validated ethnic facial irregularities. The new screen version of The Green Hornet flips Williams’ square-jawed virility for tall, goofily boyish Seth Rogen. This time, affluent crime fighter Britt Reid is also the embodiment of the Jewish schlemiel, a satirical take on superhero convention that responds to the inanity of Hollywood’s contemporary franchises. It’s not a revolutionary flip since Rogen represents the Jewish stand-up comedy impudence that Judd Apatow has already instituted. But Rogen’s image and his attitude as co-screenwriter of The Green Hornetupdates the bland superhero template using comic irreverence.
Now Britt Reid displays father issues, obnoxious infantilism and ineptitudefrom the Woody Allen archetype of ambitious Jewish self-deprecation. Britt’s partnership with chauffeur, genius, aide-de-camp, inventor and martial arts expert Kato (played by Jay Chou) reveals a competitive sense of inferiority. It conveys the prolonged adolescence that usually goes unmentioned in American pop culture and is key to the superhero genre’s apparently undying appeal. Most superhero action films exploit adolescent response; a bratty-satirical version of The Green Hornet is the first to reckon with this fact. Exchanging WASP handsomeness for ethnic childishness means The Green Hornet’s best moments are actually about something.
Credit director Michel Gondry for taking Rogen’s schmuck shtick past neurotic selfinterest. Now The Green Hornet’s entire law-and-order pretense instantly cuts to the secret of superhero fiction: Gondry examines the childlike neediness of masculine insecurity also at the heart of his previous films Human Nature, The Science of Sleep and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Because Gondry is also a surreal humorist, the genre’s fantastic contrivances are almost a natural extension of how he views Britt and Kato’s basic conflict and friendship. Even super villain Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz) displays the same masculine crisis in his need to appear potent and fearsome. An early confrontation between Chudnofsky and an upstart crime lord (the overexposed James Franco) is a shallow pissing match that suggests the awkward antagonisms in the Iron Man movies, but has a better-acted emotional scale.
Gondry treats The Green Hornetand the entire superhero genreas a joke on the ethos of pop masculinity. What’s implicit in the physical and cultural differences of Rogen and Williams is exactly what makes Gondry’s best moments preferable to the current boring standard of superhero action movies. Simply put: Gondry corrects such gloomy superserious nonsensense as The Dark Knight, where Christian Bale embodied the bland WASP ideal. Gondry corrects Christopher Nolan’s entire lugubrious con game (including Inception) using psychological comedy. Better yet, using ethnic comedy.
There’s an egalitarian frisson in Britt’s rivalry with Kato: Jewish-Asian competitiveness; white party boy privilege vs. yellow man sacrifice; wealthy condescension vs. proletarian efficacy. Their skirmishes are more amusing than the typical good guy-bad guy fight scenes because they openly express the tension inside the racist convention of white hero and colored sidekick. ("I’m Indy; you’re Short Round!"
Britt says, invoking Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.) Chou’s Kato inherits the esteem of Bruce Lee’s original Kato, whose kung-fu skills stole the ’60s series right from under Williams’ beautiful mug. Both guys were dashing in harlequin masks that made their virility mysterious and alluring. In the same guise, Rogen and Chou thoroughly demystify that sexual threat. Instead, the Britt-Kato rivalry gets dispelled into their jealous pursuit of Lenore (Cameron Diaz), the newly romanticized ideal of WASP attainment. It’s like a Hope-Crosby road movie of challenging bromance.
"Did you put this diaper on me?" Britt asks Kato. It marks Rogen as the first movie star who deliberately acts-out overgrown adolescence. Yet Gondry makes this richer than Apatow’s juvenile egotism. Paired with the shot of Chou literally sketching an homage to Bruce Lee like a daydreaming schoolboy, these childlike elements help The Green Hornet put superhero fiction (its devices as well as its insufficiencies) in a context that almost revitalizes the genre. (It’s got to be Gondry’s idea and good pop taste to play that great ode to losers Anvil: The Story of Anvil on Britt’s wall-mounted TV.)
Some of the action antics (a rolling cement mixer, a living-room-to-kitchen fracas) attempt Richard Lester’s genre mockery, but the 3D technology hampers Gondry’s usual compositional panache. This 3D looks unnecessarily cluttered. Still, Gondry advances the comic book panels idea that Ang Lee attempted in The Hulk. The cinematic highpoint here is Gondry’s split-screen underworld, where criminals spread the word to kill the Green Hornet; it suggests what Fritz Lang would have done in a modern version of M. It’s a marvel of constantly expanding narrative logic and clarity. Gondry’s montage recalls his timebending "Sugar Water" music video for Cibo Matto, but it’s also the fulfillment of Norman Jewison’s playful introduction of the split-screen into Hollywood narrative in 1968′s The Thomas Crown Affair. Thanks to Gondry, the superhero franchise that has become a blight on Hollywood suddenly shows unexpected potential.