The Green Hornet — the saga of Britt Reid, a newspaper publisher by day and masked hero by night who battles baddies with his Asian sidekick Kato — has been around for almost a century: radio show in the 1930s, film serial in the 1940s and TV series in the 1960s. All of those incarnations played the crime fighter straight, but director Michel Gondry’s big-screen revival takes the material in a radically different direction. This Hornet is a big, boisterous action-comedy — a funny, exciting and intentionally goofy summer movie that just happens to arrive in the middle of January.
Rotund funnyman Seth Rogen, who wrote the screenplay with his frequent collaborator Evan Goldberg (they also wrote Superbad and Pineapple Express), initially seemed odd casting for the role of the Bruce Wayne-ish Britt, a wealthy playboy who uses his fortune to build impossible gadgets and cars. But Rogen knows how to write parts for himself that make the best use of his talents — he’s perfect as the unlikely, mostly hapless hero — and Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Be Kind Rewind), an equally unexpected choice to direct such pulpy material, latches onto Rogen’s sense of humor. Beginning with the opening scene (which includes a terrific surprise cameo), The Green Hornet strikes a deft balance of comedy and comic-book shenanigans that never wavers. The characters take what is happening seriously, but the movie doesn’t. Gondry doesn’t strive for camp or spoof, either of which would have instantly killed the movie’s buzz. But the picture always keeps the funny coming, even when people are being killed in nasty ways. The tone is strongly reminiscent of the satirical kick in Kick-Ass, minus the R-rated gore and language (this is an exceptionally kid-friendly movie).
The key to its success isn’t Rogen, who has played this sort of likable doofus before, but Taiwanese superstar Jay Chou, who makes his English-language debut as Kato, a martial-arts expert, mechanical whiz and barista extraordinaire. Chou recites his dialogue phonetically, the way Bruce Lee (who is paid clever homage here) did on the TV show, and his athletic prowess and unaffected performance — he acts as if he were unaware he is starring in a comedy — keep The Green Hornet from tipping over into complete idiocy. He’s a perfect foil for Rogen — the movie is at its best when the two are on their own — and Gondry gives Chou almost all of the film’s big action set pieces and special effects, for good reason: Without Kato, the Green Hornet would just be a guy with an outrageously souped-up car (specifically, a tricked-out Chrysler Imperial, which makes the Batmobile look like a Yugo).
Every superhero saga lives or dies by the strength of its villain, and The Green Hornet, unfortunately, is saddled with a generic one: The drug-dealing gangster Chudnofsky, played by Inglourious Basterds’ Christoph Waltz. The character is so thin — he is distinguished only by his poor fashion sense — that even the gifted Waltz can’t do anything to enliven his evil glee. Faring worse is Cameron Diaz as Britt’s secretary, who serves absolutely no purpose in the story – none – other than to prove that Britt and Kato aren’t gay, although the film still exploits the heroes’ bromance for laughs: “Girls are such a drag, Kato,” Britt complains. “It’s a good thing we have each other.”
Those flaws may keep The Green Hornet from soaring outright, but Gondry keeps spinning the giddy fun, including an impressive 3D upconversion — the best I’ve seen (you’d never guess the film was shot with 2D cameras). The movie isn’t as transgressive or experimental as Gondry’s participation promised. There’s only one sequence, arriving late in the film, in which the director is allowed to cut loose with his eccentric style: You’ll know it when you see it. But Gondry turns out to be surprisingly adept at orchestrating large-scale action, such as the climactic showdown, which spreads from a newspaper’s pressing plant to a newsroom populated by old-media reporters. That setting will probably date The Green Hornet — you can imagine kids watching the movie a few years from now, thinking of it as a period piece set in the ancient past. The rest of this irreverent, immensely likable entertainment, though, feels of the moment.