Sunday, January 16, 2011

Superhero Sting: THE GREEN HORNET

In theory the playfully fanciful French auteur Michel Gondry should be the perfect choice to direct a superhero movie. After all, it was similarly quirky cult favorite directors like Guillermo del Toro and Sam Raimi that helped make some of the genre’s best. Gondry’s take on The Green Hornet, star of a 1930’s radio serial who has also turned up in comics and TV shows in the intervening decades, is interesting, to say the least. He’s not given the possibility to go full masterpiece, like in his beautifully complicated Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or even full on goofy and heartfelt, like in his sweet Be Kind, Rewind. Working with a script by Seth Rogen and his buddy Evan Goldberg, who have previously written Superbad and Pineapple Express, and doubtlessly shaped by market-driven forces, the movie is popcorn filmmaking that is stuck to the formula of the superhero origin story. Gondry makes it a rough-and-tumble film, though, a quick, brawling source of hit-and-miss hilarity and appealing action. It’s a thoroughly sweeded superhero flick, a chance for talented fans to take over and provide an energetic good time.

But wait, I can almost hear you asking yourself if it’s true that the idiosyncratic and charmingly phantasmagoric Gondry and the king of the R-rated comedy Rogen have collaborated on a film. Indeed it is, and it makes for an odd mix, at least at first. Gondry’s films have a loose specificity and a handmade feel, as if they were literally knitted or paper-mâché crafted into existence. Rogen’s scripts and performances, on the other hand, feel shaggy and improvised. The styles don’t quite gel at the film’s outset, though the film is also burdened with its exposition.

Rogen stars as Britt Reed, wild child heir to a prestigious newspaper mogul (Tom Wilkinson) who dies just minutes into the film. Bewildered while facing new responsibilities, he decides to do something with his life. He’s been wasting his potential and disappointing his father, a point that is belabored early and often with the overbearing work-a-holic Wilkinson juxtaposed with his party-all-the-time son. By the time an ex-employee of the father, a genius mechanic who goes by the name of Kato (Jay Chou), shows up to help Reed with his coffee machine, the movie starts to sputter to life.

For some half-believable set of reasons, Reed and Kato become quick friends and decide to take the city’s crime problem head on after they inadvertently stop a mugging that interrupts their plans of vandalism. Through a combination of newspapering and superheroics, their legend grows. At the paper, they start to spread the word about the Green Hornet, a masked menace. Head editor Edward James Olmos is wary about running what appear to be fluff pieces about an isolated incident, but secretary/criminologist Cameron Diaz finds herself intrigued. As the Green Hornet, Reed is part likeable goof, part fanboy. He leaves the heroics to Kato, who not only develops all of their gadgetry, but also flips about in super-cool Gondry-style kung-fu moves that fracture the frame and control the speed of time itself. All of these dubiously good deeds attract the attention of the local crime boss (Christoph Waltz, who is just fine here in an odd role that’s no Hans Landa) and the District Attorney (David Harbour).

At first, I wasn’t too thrilled by the movie, which has a hard time finding a persuasive or smooth way of introducing character and conflict, which leads to a messy opening act. While it never shakes its messily constructed frame, the awkward set up leads to a mostly successful payoff. The film has fun energy and conviction and by the time it enters its final third it had totally won me over. Rogen’s goofball hysterics and Gondry’s off-kilter whimsy fall into harmony and pile up into a building collection of slam-bang action set pieces that sing with delightful visual wit. The finale, an explosive encounter in a printing press, is an exuberant and inventive cacophony that left me with a smile. Though Rogen’s coarse banter and Gondry’s vivid cinematic imagination don’t seem the most natural fit, they end up melding to the well-trod formula of the superhero origin story with, despite some uneasy tonal shakiness and aimless plot convolution, some surprisingly effective excitement.

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