Would anyone besides Michel Gondry stage the climactic shootout in a contemporary superhero movie in a newspaper printing plant? I'm only surprised the scene doesn't also involve fax machines, pneumatic tubes and somebody delivering a telegram. To most viewers of "The Green Hornet," a long-hexed, big-budget 3-D project that has finally made its way to theaters, this will probably just look like an old-fashioned fight sequence, a bit retro in style and setting but in no way extraordinary. But to Gondry's fans -- who may have been whittled down to a purist core at this point by his wobbly, wandering career -- that scene will seem like the key to the whole enterprise.
The Green Hornet, after all, is a masked crime-fighter whose career began on Depression-era radio, at the very dawn of American superhero drama. He predates both Superman and Batman, and unlike them belongs largely to the past. Since the short-lived TV series of the mid-'60s, which starred a young Bruce Lee as Kato, the Hornet's Asian sidekick, the character has made only sporadic appearances in niche-oriented comic books, and none at all in mainstream pop culture. Who better than Gondry, a filmmaker fascinated with obsolete technology, handmade special effects and the trappings of early modernism, to bring this three-quarters-forgotten vigilante into the 21st century?
Well, nobody, which is why Gondry has been attached to "The Green Hornet," on and off, since the movie was first conceived (as a George Clooney project!) in the late '90s. (Along the way, Kevin Smith and Stephen Chow also took turns not directing it.) But that evades several important questions, including whether it was worth rescuing the Hornet from the dustbin of cultural history in the first place, whether Gondry's talents are in any way suited to making expensive 3-D studio flicks, and how much you really want to watch Seth Rogen as the hero of an action movie. Yes, once upon a time the Green Hornet was going to be Clooney and now it is Rogen. That really says it all, good and bad, and I can just stop here.
OK, I won't. Since you said please. Given the general air of doom surrounding "The Green Hornet" -- including the fact that it was once planned as one of last summer's big releases, and here it is in the frozen junkyard of January -- I'm pleased to report that the movie is entirely watchable and often pretty fun, in a mishmashed, patchy kind of way. Put that on your poster, Columbia Pictures! Furthermore, it's too facile to suggest that the problem is too much Rogen and not enough Gondry, because "The Green Hornet" is weird, half-baked and not entirely satisfactory in ways that belong to both of them. Still, I'm going to say it anyway. I'm pretty sure I'm not alone in feeling that Rogen can be hilarious in modest doses, but having him play the meathead party boy who inherits his dad's newspaper and then goes, I quote, "balls-deep into shit-kickin' dudes" and having him co-write the screenplay (with Evan Goldberg) is a whole lot of not-quite-self-mocking-enough dudealicious humor for one motion picture.
Rogen's Britt Reid is an unrepentant booze-swigging, hottie-shagging degenerate who abruptly decides, after the unexpected demise of his upright but standoffish dad (Tom Wilkinson), to pair up with Pop's ace mechanic, chauffeur and barista and bring down the crime lords of L.A. by pretending to be one of them. No, really -- this decision takes about a minute, and seems predicated on the sudden-blooming bromance between Britt and Kato (Taiwanese actor and pop star Jay Chou), a slender lad who favors form-fitting designer threads and an early-'90s boy-band haircut. At least the homoerotic undertones of "The Green Hornet" are played for laughs. Gondry and Rogen never successfully deal with the inescapable fact that Kato is Britt's servant, and that the Hornet gets all the credit for Kato's considerable ass-kicking skills. The two of them spar halfheartedly for the affections of Lenore (a likable but irrelevant Cameron Diaz), but like a lot of unraveled threads in Rogen and Goldberg's script, that goes nowhere.
Most of the way "The Green Hornet" is an unstable and largely nonsensical mixture of juvenile guy humor and indiscriminate violence, dominated by Rogen as a cuddly, overconfident idiot who's just this side -- or maybe just the other side -- of being an unredeemable douchebag. Gondry and his production design team contribute a bunch of awesome-looking gizmos and gadgets, including Kato's Black Beauty, an elegant, 1950s-style street rod outfitted with machine guns, missiles, bulletproof glass and a chameleon-like ability to change color. Christoph Waltz, the German actor who won an Oscar last year for "Inglourious Basterds," pretty nearly steals the whole movie by radically underplaying as Chudnofsky, an insecure supervillain concerned that he no longer scares anyone. (Waltz's introductory scene, in which he terrifies an uncredited James Franco, is worth the price of admission all by itself.)
I'm pretty well convinced that Gondry is damaging his immortal soul by using 3-D (unless he can convince himself that it's actually 1950s, "Dial M for Murder"-style 3-D), but I'm damned if he hasn't gone ahead and made one of the better 3-D pictures of the post-"Avatar" wave. Cinematographer John Schwartzman's images of nighttime Los Angeles are crisp and clear, and Gondry creates two marvelous ultra-slo-mo fight sequences for Chou's Kato, along with a couple of imaginative montages that challenge anyone's use of the medium. In one of them, the crime-movie convention of a citywide manhunt becomes a delightful mosaic of rapidly multiplying tiled images, each at a different position in our field of vision.
But the special effects and action sequences in "The Green Hornet" are run-of-the-mill Hollywood fare; there are only snatches, here and there, of the DIY, handmade aesthetic that dominated Gondry's films from "Human Nature" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" through "Be Kind Rewind." I'm pretty sure that a terrific Gondry "Green Hornet" was possible, and let's assume, if purely for the sake of argument, that a Rogen "Hornet" could have been really good too. But they shouldn't have tried to make one together, and the general impression you get is that they bored the living crap out of each other. I'm guessing that Rogen had no interest in Gondry's odd and specific design aesthetic, and Gondry made no effort to tone down Rogen's anarchic and asinine combination of yucks and violence. The result is perfectly fine as midwinter time-wasters go, but will go down in movie history with all the pathos and resonance of yesterday's newspaper.