‘The Green Hornet’ Movie: Better and More Violent Than We Ever Expected
Despite the fact that I loved the old Van Williams/Bruce Lee show when I was a kid, I wasn't really looking forward to the big screen version of The Green Hornet.
Of course, considering that the last two movies ComicsAlliance sent me to see were Jonah Hex and the downright abysmal Marmaduke, there's a reason for my cynicism that has absolutely nothing to do with Green Hornet itself, but even so, the signs did not look good. For one thing, this movie is a project that's been in bouncing around Hollywood for almost 20 years. Since 2006, it's been attached to Kevin Smith -- whose script Phil Hester and Jonathan Lau adapted for comics over the past year -- then passed ro Stephen Chow (Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer), who was going to make his American film debut directing and starring as Kato. Finally, it went to director Michel Gondry with Seth Rogen starring and a script by Rogen and Evan Goldberg. It was a cinematic hot potato that it didn't seem like anyone could get to work, and while I like Gondry, Rogen and Goldberg a lot, they weren't the guys I'd pick for a super-hero action picture.
Plus, for every Green Hornet trailer that ran on TV, there were like six GH-themed ads for Hardee's, the message of which was apparently that the Green Hornet was a) really into chicken fingers, and b) really dumb. And they were awful.
It all added up to a whole mess of bad signs, which is why I was completely surprised when I went to the theater and found out that the movie is actually really good.
In a lot of ways, it was exactly the kind of movie you'd expect from a screenplay by Rogen and Goldberg. Rogen plays the same kind of character that he always plays, and the dynamic between Britt Reid and Kato follows almost exactly on the path of the dynamic between Seth and Evan (the characters) in Superbad. Admittedly, it's also the same dynamic that you get in every buddy cop movie, but the fact that it's a cocky wastrel -- Britt Reid -- and the hardworking, slightly less cocky buddy/sidekick who feels unappreciated and calls him on his nonsense -- Kato -- feels very much like their go-to relationship.
Especially since their inevitable fight-then-break-up-then-join-together-as-equals moment is sparked by an argument over a girl.
Again, this was something that I knew going in that didn't sound like it was going to be appealing at all. Action -- even comedic action -- can be an entirely different beast than comedy when it comes to what works and what doesn't, but the script makes it work. Instead of just playing it for laughs, the characterization does a lot to give Rogen's version of Britt Reid a defined character arc.
In the opening scene, Britt's father attempts to teach him a harsh lesson that's essentially the opposite of Spider-Man's Uncle Ben. He tells him that trying is worthless if you fail, and while the intent is to clearly spur the young Britt to succeed, the result is that he just stops trying. Even his first outing as the Green Hornet isn't that he's motivated to be a hero, but that he's really drunk and wants to do something that would piss off his old man. Even his attempts at crimefighting are completely irresponsible, and have more in common with the car chases from The Blues Brothers than with any other super-hero movie, and his primary use of his father's legacy is commanding the staff of the Daily Sentinel to sensationalize his own adventures.
By the end, though, there's a change to his character and a desire to do the right thing that's still coupled with the ineptitude that makes it funny. Again, this isn't exactly a revolutionary concept -- it is, in fact, the structure of every comedy ever -- but it's pulled off with a cleverness that feels fresh, even though the plot is a largely forgone conclusion, right down to Britt Reid getting shot in the Designated Non-Fatal Action Hero Wound Area (DNFAHWA, or "shoulder").
Which isn't to say that it doesn't have its share of surprises. I was actually pretty shocked that Michel Gondry is actually pretty great at directing action.
Don't get me wrong, I like Gondry's work quite a bit -- although until now, I've been more a fan of his music videos than his films -- but Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Be Kind Rewind weren't exactly heavy on explosions and kung fu. And yet, the action sequences were fantastic.
The first big fight scene does a really nice job of combining traditional action elements -- and that whole variable speed stuff the kids are so keen on these days -- with the elements of surrealism that Gondry is known for. There's a part where Kato runs across the hood of a car that, as the camera shifts to his point of view, stretches out to a dozen cars next to each other, in a way that's actually pretty reminiscent of the White Stripes video. It's an exaggeration that really sells the over-the-top super-heroic aspects of the fights, underscoring the slapstick elements and mitigating some of the more brutal violence.
The other big fight that sticks out is the one between Kato and Britt themselves, where they get mad and start wailing on each other with anything handy -- including a suit of armor and a dirtbike. It seems to be a huge, hilarious riff on Jackie Chan or the exact sort of thing I was expecting from Stephen Chow, and brings me to something else I really liked about the movie. There was never any attempt to make Jay Chou's version of Kato fit the mold of Bruce Lee's.
There are references, of course. Kato's an aspiring artist who has drawings of Lee in his sketchbook and attempts to strike Game of Death style poses in the mirror, and at one point he even three-inch-punches a dude through a window, but overall he's got a much more contemporary sort of style. Rogen and Goldberg's screenplay also does away with the established relationship with Kato wherein Britt Reid saves his life and he swears to be his manservant forever, for what are probably pretty obvious reasons.
Either way, Chou's one of the real highlights of the film, and definitely the most enjoyable part to watch.
My favorite shot of the movie, though, wasn't one of the fights. There's a scene after the bad guys put a price on the Green Hornet's head where the camera follows one of the crooks as he spreads the word. That shot splits into three simultaneous shots, each camera following one of the people as they go on to tell others, and then splits again, and splits again, until there are eight simultaneous shots on the screen at once, all done without a single cut -- or at least, not one that's apparent. It's an amazing visual, and while it's not as obvious an attempt at bringing comic book style visuals to film as you'd see in Scott Pilgrim, it's one of the best examples I've seen of doing something you can only do in comics -- panel layout -- in a way that you could only do in film.
One of the other big surprises -- and bear in mind that I'm getting into some pretty major spoilers -- is just how violent this movie actually is.
I mentioned before that a lot of the violence comes off as slapstick -- the most common way that people die in this movie is that they have something heavy dropped on them, as though the Green Hornet was battling a gang of Wile E. Coyotes -- but there's no getting around the fact that a ton of people die in this movie, and not just because of the bad guys. The Green Hornet and Kato kill a lot of people.
On their first night out as vigilantes, Kato ends up shooting a guy in the head, and this is never mentioned again, which is pretty jarring considering how funny the fight scene surrounding it was. There are also plenty of (actually very good) car chase scenes that see the Black Beauty running cops off the road in massive wrecks, and while one of them comes with a token overdubbed voice to denote that the cop didn't actually die, the others are pretty brutal.
The biggest shocker, though, comes appropriately enough at the end -- and again, spoilers here -- where the heroes straight up murder the two bad guys, one by dropping a car on him, and the other by Kato stabbing him in the eyes with a pair of table legs. It's insanely brutal, and the fact that there's no blood accompanying it due to the PG-13 rating only makes it weirder. It would actually be less disturbing with a huge, Evil Dead 2-style fountain of the stuff.
That aside, I still liked the movie and thought the action was mostly great, and even at its most extreme, the violence did contribute to the sense that the heroes are in way over their heads, which is another big theme of the movie.
I really enjoyed the fact that The Green Hornet completely embraced and exaggerated the one thing that sets its title character apart from other characters: that he's a good guy that everyone thinks is a criminal. This is, after all, a movie where a super-hero explicitly bases his career on John Gotti's rise to power, and it uses that to great effect to heighten the tension and pull off some pretty neat tricks, especially at the end.
Another unexpected piece of enjoyment came from the villain, Chudnofsky, played by Christoph Waltz:
Waltz was, of course, the villain in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, and he brings the same mix of gleeful and sinister to his role here as an aging and completely insane kingpin -- pulling off the mean feat of ruling over all the crime in Los Angeles -- who fears that he's losing his touch and reinvents himself as a super-villain in response to Britt Reid reinventing himself as the Green Hornet. It's easy to see how he went from Basterds to Hornet, as both films cast him as a funny, over-the-top villain that's still a credible, threatening antagonist, though he's admittedly nowhere near as terrifying here as he was as the Jew Hunter.
One last thought: This was the first of the new crop of 3D movies I've seen, meaning that in addition to being out ten bucks for a matinee, I can finally make the jokes that everyone else was writing two years ago. I didn't know it was in 3D until I was looking up times for the local theater and I was actually pretty surprised, as nothing I'd seen had emphasized the 3D aspect or looked like it particularly benefited from that third dimension. And as it turned out, it didn't.
There was seriously no reason at all for the 3D. What there was looked fine and I'm glad to have finally seen what it looks like, but the only time I actually noticed that it wasn't just a standard movie was when someone was firing a machine gun and the shell casings were dropping towards the foreground. I will say, though, the closing credits, which were all done up in comic book style typography, actually did take advantage of the 3D, and they looked spectacular.
But that leads to what's probably the best thing I could possibly say about this movie: Even with the extra charge for the 3D that added nothing at all to the experience, I still don't think I paid too much to see The Green Hornet. It's a good one.