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January 26, 2011

Green Hornet Review: Wait For DVD Or Cable

Green Hornet's the sort of movie that disappoints me more than a straight-up failure. A straight-up failure -- nothing salvageable. It's like getting beaten 42-3 -- there's no point worrying about this or that mistake you made because, hell, what did any particular mistake matter?

The Green Hornet's like getting beaten in overtime 24-21 when you had three opportunities to salt the game away in regulation. The mistakes may not be as huge in the 42-3 route, but they hurt all the more, because, hell, it was almost in the grasp.

I'm not a Green Hornet fanboy -- I saw the show like once or twice, years ago, and wasn't impressed. I never read the comics (if they have comics). I do know the basic gist of the idea, though, and the bit of trivia that Brit Reid (the Green Hornet) is actually the descendant of John Reid (the Lone Ranger), as they'd been created by the same radio-show team. So, I sort of like the idea of the Green Hornet, but not enough to have every actually taken an interest in the old show or the character in another medium.

I give it the two and half star rating, for a movie barely worth seeing, just on the right side of the good/bad divide. But honestly, they had a three star movie lurking around here.


Here are the problems:

They said Seth Rogen couldn't play a superhero. They were right, it turns out, but for the wrong reasons. Rogen, I think, become defensive and skittish about people taking him seriously as a superhero that he turned the movie into almost a parody of the genre (almost); a sort of defensive move on his part, as he feared people saying, "Oh, where does this chubby slacker get off thinking he's a superhero?" So the movie is a huge goof on him and his character Brit Reid aka The Green Hornet.

The movie makes a joke of Brit's basic unseriousness/incompetence/stupidity, which is fine, but it lives on that joke. It never moves off of it. Even at the very end (I won't say more), when it seems like they should turn the corner and let poor Brit have his moment of heroism, they can't help themselves from piling up further exhibitions Homer-Simpson-level doltishness.

You may have heard -- the joke here is that Kato is ominicompetent, the actual superhero, and the Green Hornet is really the goofy sidekick (but he and the press mistake him for the superhero). Kato is amazing in combat, whereas the Green Hornet is lucky to get in a solid punch, and in fact the Green Hornet's main contribution to the duo's fighting prowess is kicking men already on the ground (thanks to Kato) while yelling his idea of a heroic catch-phrase-- "Eat shit!"

Is that funny? Yes, it is... for a while. At some point you sort of want the Green Hornet to show he's even in the ballpark of Kato. He doesn't.

So, Kato's the skilled fighter of the pair. That means Green Hornet must be good with gadgets. No, Kato does the gadgets (nice ones, too!); Brit calls Kato a "human Swiss army knife" due the many skills and tools he brings to the table. On the other hand, the Green Hornet doesn't even know how to work the controls of the car.

So, okay, Kato's the fighter and the tech guy; then the Green Hornet must be the brains/tactician Well, no, he's not that either. The pair sort of doesn't even have that. "We don't know what the hell we're doing!" Brit says at one point in the movie. (This is an amusing idea, really: without spoiling any of the movie's small pleasures, they figure out a way of basically cheating off the smart girl in class as far as brains and tactics.)

Really the Green Hornet only brings one thing -- money, and it's not even his money, it's his father's.

Again, I sort of like this basic idea and think it could have worked if not for the fact they just could never get past constantly hammering the idea that the Green Hornet is the World's Worst Superhero even when a point comes in the film where you're really rooting for the hapless Brit Reid to finally do something... but still, they won't give you that.

I actually was willing to buy into Seth Rogen as a superhero early in the movie. Sure, he starts out as a spoiled partyboy (but then, so did Tony Stark, sort of). And sure, he isn't what you'd think of as a superhero. But neither was Robert Downey Jr.

But why not? Sure, why not Seth Rogen? Isn't it true that what unites all heroes isn't a particular skill-set or body-type but just that they have 1 guts and 2 moral purpose? And that those two, guts and moral purpose, seem, in heroic fiction, to magically confer the ability to do a great many things that seem impossible, like dodging hundreds of machine gun bullets fired at short range? (Kick-Ass called it "optimism and naivete," same idea.)

I mean, so what if Seth Rogen is a little overweight (he's slimmed down for the role, here, though); it's not as if it's more plausible that heroic-build Daniel Craig can move faster than a bullet just because he has well-rounded shoulders.

But... here's where the naysayers were right: Whereas I was actually ready to buy into Seth Roegen as a superhero, Seth Rogen himself never was; I don't think he ever had the confidence to say, "Sure, damnit, I can be a superhero like any of those male-models type," and thus sabotaged his script into a spoof because he didn't dare make a case for himself as superhero.

Which is a shame. As I say: Why not Seth Rogen? Rogen himself bought into the conventional wisdom that he couldn't play the Green Hornet, and he doesn't play the Green Hornet -- what he plays here is a joke version of the Green Hornet invented by a different movie (Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story featured the joke of Kato as superhero and Green Hornet as hapless sidekick).

Instead, he should have taken it as an acting challenge, that he would actually convince people he could be a superhero: And if he had taken it as a challenge, he actually would have pulled it off.

As it is, he sets his sights low and, well, when you aim low, you score low.

You might say, well, isn't this a comedy then? What's wrong with a straight-up comedy or parody?

Well, nothing's wrong with it, but in fact this isn't a straight-up comedy or parody -- it's really an action-comedy (or comedy-action) in which they just completely fail to deliver on the action/adventure/drama part.

Besides, even in a straight-up comedy, they rely upon the tropes of real drama to help the movie. I mean, look at Stripes: as goofy a comedy as you could want, but at the end, if you're telling me you aren't rooting for Winger & Co. to beat the Russkies, I say you're a liar. Even in a silly comedy like that, they do use an essentially dramatic, not comedic, situation to conclude the movie and give it a Rocky-type underdog-makes-good ending.

I can list dozens of straight-up comedies that rely at their conclusion on a more-or-less dramatic ending: Even Anchorman, with Will Ferrell's (admittedly silly) redemption. Waterboy? He wins the game, doesn't he? Happy Gilmore? He wins the Masters (or whatever they call it in that movie.)

The movie never really commits to any kind of serious action premise with a genuine dramatic threat, even in Act III. They make the most basic mistake in an action-comedy-- they make the villain ridiculous. Heroes can be ridiculous, heroes' love interests ridiculous, heroes' friends and families ridiculous... everyone can be ridiculous except the villain. If the villain is to pose a credible threat -- necessary for any dramatic tension in the climax -- he can't be ridiculous.

Hans Gruber was funny, not ridiculous. A villain can be funny. He can't be silly/absurd, though. Hans Gruber could crack jokes but Die Hard never suggested for one second that Gruber wasn't very clever, ruthless, and dangerous. Quite the opposite.

In the Green Hornet -- keeping with the "subvert the whole dramatic arc of the heroic narrative" thing -- the villain is ridiculous and cannot be taken seriously at all. Christoph Waltz (the Nazi from Inglorious Basterds) plays a mild-mannered but supposedly dangerous LA crime figure named Chudnofsky, but from the first moments we see him, he's absurd -- he's told that he's "not scary enough," and spends the rest of the moving worrying about how scary he is (or isn't) and ultimately begins proposing some very silly ways to seem "more scary," but these idea are in fact silly and stupid, and not scary-- he decides to become an idiot's idea of a first-draft supervillain, along with bad, overwrought catch-phrase.

You see what I mean? How can you possibly be worried at the end of the movie that such a ridiculous creature can kill the heroes? It's hard to believe that he's capable of living on his own without state assistance.

I think what happened is they said "We can't have a great actor like Waltz playing a cookie-cutter Heavy Menace, so let's give him some funny lines," but seriously, serve the story, guys. In the end, even in a silly movie, the villain has to be a villain. The Russian interrogators in Stripes weren't silly -- they were menacing and cruel.

The insertion of comedy where it shouldn't be (as in silly bickering banter during what is supposed to be a deadly car chase -- yes, they make that mistake too*) is almost never funny -- you usually can't even hear the lines over the bombast of music and explosions, and it isn't funny even if you do hear it -- and it destroys any kind of weak dramatic tension you're building towards.

Save the funny lines for when it would actually, plausibly happen -- right after the danger has passed. (Die Hard observes this rule, for example: McClane doesn't quip when he's under fire, only after he gets out of it.)

Anyway, while it sounds like my views on this movie are overwhelmingly negative, in fact, they're not. It is a funny movie. I laughed a lot, and smiled at the stuff that wasn't laugh-out-loud funny but still pretty funny. There weren't too many jokes that failed to land at all. (Minus the stupid banter during the car chase.) Both leads, plus Cameron Diaz, were fun enough.

It's sort of a good idea for a movie -- a non-super hero somewhere north of Kick-Ass in ability, but well, well south of Batman. The basic idea of that, the well-equipped vigilante, offers, potentially, a good mix of grit and swashbuckling.

And the car-- the Black Beauty -- is terrific. It's a gangster-looking black 65 Chrysler Imperial, tricked out as you'd like (all armor, heavy machine guns, flame-thrower, self-inflating tires, anti-tire blades). But what keeps it from being a classic is, again, it's just never used in a really tense moment to save the heroes, as, say, the Millenium Falcon was. It, too, lacks a real Hero Moment, a moment when things are serious and we've only got one shot, because the movie really doesn't ever trust itself enough to try for one. So, in the end, it's just a cool-looking car. The car can't actually be cool or bad-ass because the script is too unsure of itself to permit real bad-assery.

80% of this movie works just fine, including portraying Brit Reid as a callow, selfish, dimwitted partyboy who basically becomes a superhero only for immature thrill-seeking reasons -- he (and Kato) basically just do this as a kind of early-midlife-crisis joyride. It's refreshing to see a different sort of reason to go out super-heroing. And it's also welcome to see a "hero" who is actually not heroic at all in terms of personal character or virtue -- sometimes it takes a scoundrel.

All of that stuff could have worked (and to some extent does).

But at the end of the day, you have to trust yourself and believe the story you're telling, and Seth Rogen just didn't. So the whole movie is filled with defensive, protective self-parody and don't-worry-I'm-not-taking-this-seriously distance.

He really should have just bought into and committed to his own idea of stunt-casting himself as a hero. It was working.


* I call this the Tango and Cash Fallacy -- hey, if we tell jokes during an exciting car chase, our chase will be both funny and exciting!

Nope. It will turn out to be neither funny or exciting. Decide on a tone for the scene, a goal, and commit to it. There is no a little from Column A and a little from Column B. A scene needs a point and a goal.

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posted by Ace at 04:05 PM

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