The Green Hornet (2011)
Trey’s rating: 3 Hornets (out of 5)
I’m actually not going to talk about the movie for a bit – however, given that I started with the poster and a rating, I should at least give a teaser of the review which will really pick up later in this piece: I didn’t hate it. Those four words were chosen very carefully, and I will elaborate shortly. But first, I feel the need to highlight a brief history of The Green Hornet, since Sony did virtually nothing to reintroduce people to the character before releasing their film.
From the moment this film was announced, the question on (almost) everyone’s lips was essentially “Who the hell is the Green Hornet?” This would inevitably be followed by “Oh, they guy who hung around in a green suit while Bruce Lee kicked ass.” And thus I would grimace, grit my teeth, and do my best to hold my tongue.
The Green Hornet began in the 1930s with the success of The Lone Ranger radio program. Creators George W. Trendle and Fran Striker wanted to replicate the success of that show, and so they moved the formula to a contemporary setting. The key element (which often is left out of Green Hornet adaptations) is that Trendle actually linked the characters together: a recurring character on The Lone Ranger was the Ranger’s young nephew Dan Reid. In The Green Hornet, Britt Reid’s father is named……Dan Reid. The radio show ran virtually uninterrupted from 1936 to 1952. This version would establish the characters and tone which would remain with the franchise for most of its incarnations. Britt Reid, a talented reporter and publisher works with his partner/valet Kato secretly masquerade as criminals in order to rid the city of corruption and organized crime. Their arsenal, built by Kato, included the Hornet’s signature gas gun and their customized Black Beauty, which would buzz like a hornet when not rigged for “silent running.” Other characters introduced, who would recur through the other adaptations, are Mike Axford (a former policeman who begins as Reid’s bodyguard but ultimately joins the paper as a reporter), and Lenore “Casey” Case, Reid’s secretary. Together, these elements (along with the show’s signature “Flight of the Bumblebee” theme song) would inform The Green Hornet as he made his way from radio to the visual media of film and television.
The success of the radio show led to a pair of movie serials produced by Universal in the 1940s. The Green Hornet was released as 13 chapters in 1940 and starred Gordon Jones as Britt Reid and Keye Luke (#1 Son in the original Charlie Chan films of the 30s & Master Po in Kung Fu) as Kato. An interesting gimmick, which helped link the serial to the radio series, is that whenever Jones put on The Green Hornet’s mask (which in the serials was a full face mask) his voice would be replaced by that of Al Hodge, who played the Hornet on the radio. This gimmick would be abandoned for the 15-chapter sequel, The Green Hornet Strikes Again!, in which the role of the Reid/The Green Hornet was taken by serial regular Warren Hull. These serials preserved the tone and style of the radio show, with Reid using his resources and connections and Kato serving as driver and inventor. When it came to fight scenes (which , being a serial, were frequent) the two were portrayed as pulling their own weight, with Reid shown as a competent fighter even when he did not have access to his gas gun.
After the radio show was cancelled in the early 1950s, the character would not be revived until the mid-60s. The Batman television show proved to be a surprise hit, and so ABC began looking for other superhero properties to resurrect. The Green Hornet and Kato, now played by Van Williams and the not-yet-famous Bruce Lee, were updated to the 1960s, but otherwise the tone and style was consistent with prior versions. Unlike the decidedly camp approach of the Batman series, The Green Hornet was played straight – aside from a couple of guest appearances on the aforementioned Batman series. Mike Axford and Ms. Case were back, along with a new character – D.A. Frank Scanlon, who knows Reid’s identity and secretly aids him in his war on crime. This series, although it only lasted for one season, is the most iconic version of the character and would be the inspiration for virtually all future attempts to resurrect the character, including its variation on the theme song – a jazzed-up recording of “Flight of the Bumblebee” featuring Al Hirt on trumpet. Bruce Lee, being…well….Bruce Lee, was obviously the more physical of the two actors, and thus Kato took a very active role in the fight scenes. However, this actually in some ways made the Green Hornet himself more imposing – it makes sense that a crime lord (as the Hornet claims to be) would not do all the dirty work himself. Also, along with the 1960s setting there were some technological updates to the characters’ equipment: The gas gun was replaced by a device (pictured) called the “Hornet’s sting.” Think of it as his sonic screwdriver (why yes, I do watch Doctor Who – how ever did you guess?). Also, Kato wore a set of stinger-shaped darts on his sleeve which he could use as throwing weapons. Finally, the Black Beauty (inspired by both the 60s Batmobile and James Bond’s Aston Martin) was given a whole arsenal of gadgets in addition to its ability to “rig for silent running,” including missile launchers and a proto-night vision “infra-green” system shown on-screen as green headlights. The series was well-made (and is an old favorite of mine), but its serious tone was not popular at the time, and thus it was not renewed beyond the first season.
Throughout the 80s and 90s, The Green Hornet would exist only in the realm of comic books. The most notable run was published by NOW comics, which ran from 1989 until the publisher went out of business in 1995. I recently reread most of the run, and it holds up much better than a lot of mainstream 90s comics. It was especially notable for the way it preserved both the 1930s and 1960s versions of the character. The comic established a dynasty of Green Hornets, with the 1960s version being Brit Reid II, the nephew of the original character. Likewise, the “Bruce Lee” Kato was depicted as the son of the original Kato. The comics also introduced a contemporary Green Hornet, Paul Reid (the nephew of the 60s Hornet), and a new female Kato, who was eventually abandoned after the rightsholders apparently demanded the return of the “Bruce Lee” Kato. The last Green Hornet comics in this run were set in the future, with an Asian Green Hornet and a Caucasian Kato (implying that the Reid and Kato families had intermarried).
While the character went unadapted in film and television during that time, its cinematic potential was not lost on Hollywood, as a Green Hornet film has been in various stages of development throughout the 90s. Various names have been attached to the project, including George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Jake Gyllenhaal as the Green Hornet and Jason Scott Lee, Jet Li, and Stephen Chow as Kato. At one stage a script was written by Kevin Smith, which followed the lead of the NOW comics and featured the son of the 1960s Green Hornet aided by a female Kato. While this version went unproduced, Dynamite Comics recently adapted the screenplay as a way of launching their new line of Green Hornet comics, which has since spawned several variant titles covering different decades of the Green Hornet’s career (similar to the approach taken by NOW).
This brings us, more or less, to the new Green Hornet film, written by Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg and directed by Michel Gondry. There are two ways to look at this film: 1) in the context of the long history of the character that I just summarized, or 2) on its own terms as an action comedy. As I watched the film, my reactions frequently had me wavering uncomfortably between the two, which I’m sure is not a sensation experienced by most people in the audience. Seth Rogen plays Brit Reid, the immature slacker son of the publisher of the Sentinel Newspaper. After the death of his father, Reid bonds with Kato (Jay Chou), an auto mechanic/inventor/barista and the two (having quasi-noble intentions) embark on a crusade of justice as vigilantes. Visually Rogen clearly drew virtually all of his inspiration from the 1960s TV series – the costumes and car especially indicate this. However, he uses the gas gun of the 1940s version, and in his first outing with Kato their makeshift costumes actually resemble the promotional images from the radio show.
I’m not going to lie – there are actually some funny moments in this movie. While not every joke lands, enough of them work to keep you entertained. The fight scenes are also, for the most part, quite good. Chou is impressive physically, and Gondry’s use of “Kato vision” for the fights brings to mind Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, while still managing to be unique. Christoph Waltz, as the evil Chudnofsky, has an especially funny introductory scene (featuring an uncredited cameo by James Franco). In Waltz’s case, however, the writing quickly lets him down after that scene, as the balance of humor and evil is lost and his character just becomes silly. Cameron Diaz, as Ms. Case, is essentially every other Cameron Diaz role you’ve ever seen, and that is not good. Some of this is the fault of the writing, which gives her no real reason to be there aside from some exposition and to remind the audience that Britt Reid is a sexist jerk. Tom Wilkinson and Edward James Olmos are wasted as Britt’s father (inexplicably renamed James) and Mike Axford, respectively.
In fact, if the film really has a fault it is that because of the focus on humor and slapstick, none of the characters are really allowed to develop. The newspaper only comes into film when it is needed as a plot device, and the characters connected to it are barely introduced. Even Britt Reid never quite seems to grow out of his dumb slacker persona. I feel like I would have liked the movie, and his character, more if he had been allowed to be really heroic at least once, rather than always leaving the action to Kato. That is actually key to what I find unfortunate about this adaptation. Since the 60s version (presumably because of the later fame of Bruce Lee), there has been a misconception that The Green Hornet could not fight, and that Kato was the real hero of the pair. Of course, by embracing that idea and playing it for humor, the writers could easily dispel any perceived racism in a Caucasian hero with an Asian sidekick, but it really doesn’t seem necessary to me. The two being portrayed as equals, in my opinion, would have been much more impressive – in addition to being faithful to the concept.
I’m doing my best not to give away the (admittedly predictable) plot, which limits some of what I get to talk about in the review. However, I will say that the movie was at its best when Gondry was able to really show the world of the Green Hornet in a way that is distinctive from the average action movie. Several montages, spread throughout the film, highlight this through use of fast motion, split screens, and other visual techniques. Also, while I realize some critics have attacked the film’s use of 3D, I was impressed by the effect (as was my friend who accompanied me to the movie). It wasn’t Avatar, but it did a very good job of creating depth, and made the action scenes more memorable. Also, the end credits in 3D, mimicking both comic book speech bubbles and the credits sequence of the 60s series, were very cool. However, I do wish that the classic Green Hornet theme song had been allowed to play for more than a few seconds.
It may sound like I’ve been hard on the movie, especially given the attention I have paid to the character’s history, but that isn’t my real intention. True, it abandoned the themes and style traditionally attached to the concept, as well as almost all likable attributes of the title character, but taken entirely on its own it worked as a buddy action movie. It was far from perfect, and even on those terms there were a lot of problems with the writing, but I had fun watching it even as it reveled in its own stupidity. The way I described it immediately after it was over was “one Chris Tucker short of Rush Hour IV,” and I mostly stand by that. I still believe that someday there will be a new adaptation that is more faithful to what I personally find appealing about the character (perhaps as an animated film or a new tv series?), but taken on its own terms The Green Hornet is a passable action-comedy. I just hope that, in the inevitable sequel, Rogen will be less afraid to let his hero act more heroic.
If you are interested in the classic incarnations of the character, various episodes of the radio show along with both serials are available on the wonderful website www.archive.org. I’m providing direct links to those below, along with some youtube videos by way of a preview. Unfortunately, the 1960s series is currently unavailable on home video, although Syfy Channel recently held a marathon to promote the new film. I am hoping that it will be given a DVD release upon the home video release of the movie.
The Green Hornet radio show
The Green Hornet (1940 serial)
The Green Hornet (1960s TV series)
The Green Hornet 2011 trailer
BONUS – Bruce Lee’s screen test for The Green Hornet
© Ralph Lawson III, 2011, All Rights Reserved