Friday, 14 January 2011

'The Green Hornet' review:

Masked-vigilante movie 'The Green Hornet' has taken a mighty walloping from film critics since its release on Friday. The action-comedy, which stars Seth Rogen and is directed by Michel Gondry, had a troubled production history which saw the original director and co-star Stephen Chow leave the project citing "creative differences". Added to that has been the lukewarm to negative reaction given to the choice of casting comedy actor Rogen in the lead role as Britt Reid (AKA The Green Hornet), as well as the generally unenthusiastic response to the first trailer released last summer. You could be forgiven for not having heard of it too, with minimal publicity being afforded the film (I haven't seen a single TV ad or billboard) by Columbia Pictures, who are seemingly keen to cut their losses and move on - a sign that nobody had much confidence in this movie to begin with. Slap on the much-maligned retrofitted 3D and this movie practically has "avoid" written in big letters all over it.

With crushingly low expectations I went to see it on the opening day last week, mainly because I've admired all of Michel Gondry's previous films. Aside from 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' none are perfect, but all of his films are rough gems, with lots of interesting in-camera trickery and generally fairly interesting themes. His first two films were written by Charlie Kaufman, but even his subsequent works ('The Science of Sleep' and 'Be Kind Rewind') had a Kaufman-esque high-concept and a lovable off-beat sensibility. This spirit and his directorial ingenuity even carried through into his recently released lo-fi and very personal documentary 'The Thorn in the Heart'. Even so, I expected an absolute train wreck of a film in 'The Green Hornet'. I certainly didn't expect to see something so utterly entertaining.

Any misgivings I had about 'The Green Hornet' disappeared during the opening scene, in which crime boss Benjamin Chudnofsky - played by Christoph Waltz who won an Oscar last year for his role in Tarantino's 'Inglourious Basterds' - confronts a flashy, young mobster played by the excellent James Franco (in an uncredited cameo) who has made the mistake of setting up on his turf. The dialogue in this opening exchange is hilarious and both actors are fantastic to watch. Franco is sleazy and cocky, whilst Waltz seems insecure and looks genuinely hurt by accusations that he doesn't know how to dress stylishly (a barb that will become a preoccupation for the remainder of the film). The German actor underplays his role and makes it funnier, but also adds some depth to his character. Chudnofsky isn't a typical mad villain who bumps off his own henchmen (although he is that too), he is also amidst a serious mid-life crisis and is quite pathetic, something Waltz does rather well.

Rogen plays an equally unconventional hero: a spoilt, selfish, arrogant son of a millionaire who does nothing but party. We've seen that before in Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark or even in Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne, but Rogen's hero isn't charming and erudite - he is an obnoxious oaf and by and large stays that way right the way through the film. Rogen's delivery - of dialogue he penned with writing partner Evan Goldberg - is superb too, in all its underplayed, mock-macho brainlessness. The relationship between Rogen and Jay Chou, who plays his sidekick Kato, is the centre of the movie and fun to watch. The film also boasts quite an impressive supporting cast. Aside from Franco's aforementioned cameo, there are also roles for Tom Wilkinson as Rogen's father, Edward Furlong as a guy who runs a meth lab and Edward James Olmos as a newspaper man, as well as Cameron Diaz as a brainy criminologist who (for some unexplained reason) takes a temp job as Reid's secretary.

Michel Gondry has done well to put his stamp on the troubled project too. The colourful and exaggerated world his characters inhabit could hover uneasily somewhere somewhere between 'Mystery Men' and 'The Fifth Element', yet it is tonally consistent and very broad without ever jumping the shark. The director's stylised approach as ever includes sequences of animation and eye-catching, innovative in-camera set pieces which show off his preference for practical visual effects. One single-take tracking shot uses several different actors as Kato in silhouette in order to imply his great speed and agility, whilst another shot slowly pans 360 degrees around a garage full of expensive cars as Rogen, in fastforward, enters each of them with a lady he has met at a party. Great time and care seems to have been taken over the films 3D conversion too, and the result is an effect which is far better than that seen in 'Alice in Wonderland' or 'Clash of the Titans'.

As funny and winsome as I found much of 'The Green Hornet', Rogen is clearly from the Apatow stable. This manifests itself not only in the type of comedy on offer (a lot of which wouldn't be out of place in a film like 'Pineapple Express'), but perhaps most tellingly in the treatment of Cameron Diaz's love interest character. Rogen and Goldberg just don't know what to do with her and she isn't in very much of the film. The sexism of Apatow films like 'Knocked Up' (itself a Rogen vehicle) is in some ways evident here, with men again cast as lovable man-children and women as joyless shrews, patronised as "mature" or "smart" in order to get away with it. Instead the emphasis is as always on "bromance", here between Rogen and Chou. Likewise, Reid's absent (apparently long-dead) mother casts no shadow over the film or her son's character, though the death of his father is a catalyst for the film's action and Reid's transformation into a superhero. That said, there is a reason for Rogen's continued errant man-child persona: it is funny.

For a film that is so resolutely playing the superhero movie for comedy, 'The Green Hornet' is surprisingly full of exciting action. Jay Chou's martial arts work - filmed by Gondry in an interesting video game style which recalls 'Oldboy' - is fantastic, but the really brilliant thing from an action perspective is the "Black Beauty", a modified car which serves as Britt Reid's equivalent of the Batmobile. It's got so many gadgets, missiles and guns on it that, basically, if you were ten years old again you'd want a toy of it for Christmas.

There is something to be said for entering a film with diminished expectations. Maybe I wouldn't have been so positive about 'The Green Hornet' had I seen it prior to all the negativity. But even then I can't imagine slating it. It was funny, with some interesting visuals and solidly entertaining action. It has Christoph Waltz in it. I didn't even mind the 3D. I can't see it being too many people's "film of the year", but all the same: if this ends up in a few "worst of 2011" lists we'll have had an ok year at the movies.

'The Green Hornet' is out now in the UK and is rated '12A' by the BBFC.

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