The Green Hornet was supposed to be a flop. Since the project began in the ’90s, it has had half a dozen actors and nearly as many studios attached. This summer the adaptation of the 1930s radio series landed with an unceremonious thud at ComiCon, where audiences didn’t seem thrilled with seeing footage of gravel-voiced funnyman Seth Rogen—most often in a haze of pot smoke spouting dick jokes—embody vigilante hero Britt Reid. Some even walked out. The release date, originally scheduled for late December, was pushed to Jan. 14, which many took as a sign that Sony was bracing itself for some rotten tomatoes. But you know what? It’s actually kind of great.
Action-comedy is a hard mix to get right: Action isn’t inherently funny, and comedy doesn’t generally lend itself to thrilling physical feats, unless you count Buster Keaton-esque pratfalls. When the two genres do collide, it’s usually in the form of a buddy cop flick (think Bad Boys or True Lies); superhero movies, as a rule, don’t have great senses of humor (the Joker’s refrain in The Dark Night—“Why so serious?”—is an apt question). This makes Michel Gondry’s exhilarating, off-beat The Green Hornet that much more fun to watch.
Rogen stars as Britt Reid, the spoiled, wealthy son of a newspaper publisher and media magnate whose hotel-room benders and one-night stands are put to an end when his father dies suddenly, leaving Britt in charge of The Daily Sentinel—a job he’s not only woefully unqualified for but also not the least bit interested in doing. While he has dozens of party-ready hangers-on, Britt doesn’t seem to have any real friends, until he meets Kato (Jay Chou), his father’s former mechanic who also happens to be a martial arts expert and an excellent barista. During a night out on the town, Britt and Kato stumble upon a crime scene and find themselves accidental vigilantes. Britt is hooked, and after some costume changes and a few Transformers-like adjustments to a Chrysler Imperial, the Green Hornet is born—much to the chagrin of an aging villain named Chudnofsky (the wonderful Christoph Waltz, last seen in Inglourious Basterds), who will do whatever it takes to keep the city’s crime rate thriving.
In addition to starring, Rogen co-wrote the script with Evan Goldberg (his writing partner on Superbad and Pineapple Express), which lends the film an irreverent wit and charming goofiness. There are, admittedly, moments when Britt seems to regress into Rogen’s character from Knocked Up, but the movie isn’t silly. The major action sequences—of which there are many—are satisfyingly thrilling, and The Green Hornet has its share of sober moments; this isn’t “Harold and Kumar Go to Gotham City.” Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) smartly doesn’t stray far from the traditional superhero movie mold, but infuses the action with a sense of playfulness and wonder that’s a welcome respite from the gloom and doom of Batman or the effects-driven X-Men—Britt is just as bowled over by his newfound power as we are.
Similarly refreshing is the almost total lack of buxom comic-book babes. There’s a sexy gal Friday (Cameron Diaz, increasingly unrecognizable after what seems like her fourth nose job), but there’s no splashy, climactic kiss; no bow-chicka-bow-bow sex scene in between high-speed chases. If anything, the love story in The Green Hornet is between Britt and Kato, two misfits who, after blowing up a lot of guys and driving their tricked-out car through (among other things) an elevator shaft, find that they’re at the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
The Green Hornet (PG) ★★★★☆