Not many actors strike me as less obviously appropriate for the title role in The Green Hornet than Seth Rogen, the nerdy, laid-back, highly un-glamorous star of Knocked Up. But then, casting Michael Keaton as Batman seemed crazy back in 1989, and he proved a revelation in the part.
Besides, I like Rogen. Also, I like the GH character. So I went to The Green Hornet with an open mind. The gangbuster, who, with his pal Kato, is known to the police and the general public as a criminal himself, has always been sort of a cool, low-profile superhero. Created originally for radio in 1936, the masked, Fedora-lidded avenger was never a really major presence in the comics.
He’s most remembered now for his short-lived but elegant incarnation as a TV series of 1966, which ran for just one 26-episode season. Produced by William Dozier of the ‘60s Batman series, it starred the ridiculously handsome Van Williams (about as different from Rogen as you could get) in the title role, and Bruce Lee, pre-stardom, as his sidekick Kato.
All this is by way of saying that I wish I could report more enthusiastically on the new Green Hornet movie, which was tops at the box office last week. Alas, it’s not the left-field success I was hoping for. It isn’t a total disaster; it has a promising approach to the material and some very funny stretches. But it’s uneven and unsatisfying.
The approach of the script, by Rogen and Evan Goldberg, is that the GH’s alter-ego, newspaper heir Britt Reid, is a spoiled, strutting, hard-partying playboy with daddy issues whose personality swings constantly between likably exuberant and intolerably obnoxious.
Kato, played here by the Taiwanese pop singer Jay Chou, is secretly both the brains and the brawn of the outfit, the mechanical genius behind their tricked-out ride the Black Beauty, and also a martial artist of nearly supernatural prowess. He even thinks up the Green Hornet moniker.
Essentially, this turns the material into a buddy comedy, almost in the Hope/Crosby vein, and there’s no reason this couldn’t have worked. Without mugging or pushing, Rogen and Chou show a solid onscreen rapport.
Even more strikingly, both Britt and Kato take a shine to the same love interest (Cameron Diaz). The idea of a woman caught in a love triangle with a superhero and his sidekick had possibilities, but this is one of several strands that are set up and then neglected in favor of lengthy, tedious car-crash sequences.
Rogen wins genuine laughs early on, but his performance is unvaried and pushy; he doesn’t show enough of his Knocked Up sweetness, and he starts to grate by the second half. The movie isn’t any more generous to its curiously thin-skinned gangster villain, Christoph Waltz. Despite a few ripely-written scenes, he doesn’t really get to let it rip.
Perhaps Rogen, Goldberg and director Michel Gondry let this Green Hornet get too conceptually convoluted. It is, after all, about a guy faking it as a superhero who is, in turn, faking it as a criminal. Even so, the movie didn’t lose me until a scene about midpoint when Britt and Kato quarrel, and then have a long, idiotic, pointless brawl.
Aside from the brawl’s implausibility under the terms of the movie, it was also queasily similar to the equally ugly fight scene last year between Robert Downey Jr. and Don Cheadle in the otherwise enjoyable Iron Man 2.
It made me wonder if the superhero genre was belching up some unsavory resentment on the part of rich Hollywood nerds, over the reluctance of attractive nonwhites to play the sidekicks any more.