Since it was relegated to a garbage dump January release, expectations for “The Green Hornet” were low, despite it being a collaboration by critical darlings Seth Rogen, the screenwriter and lead actor, and Michel Gondry, the director. After seeing the film, most audiences felt they got the mess they expected. After seeing it myself, I admit it’s not a great film, but it’s not a bad film, and it’s not a bad film for the reasons other critics claim. Plus, it’s pretty great in the area I was most anxious about: its portrayal of Kato.
The story of the Green Hornet in nearly all its incarnations (starting with the ’30s radio show) revolves around Britt Reid, a wealthy newspaper publisher who fights crime at night as a masked vigilante. He’s aided by Kato, who in some versions was Nikkei, and was most famously played by Bruce Lee in the ’60s TV show. In that version, Lee had to play sidekick to Van Williams, a much lesser star in the grand scheme of things. Many Asian Pacific Islanders felt this was an injustice and it seems Gondry and Rogen did too, considering the characterizations in the film.
Reid is played by Rogen, who co-wrote the film with Evan Goldberg. As opposed to other superhero franchises in which the protagonist’s wealth is supposed to be another cool and admirable character element, in this version of “The Green Hornet” it is the primary challenge in his life. As a young, privileged and fabulously wealthy white male, what do you do to make your life meaningful?
He’s the mirror opposite to Kato, who is from mainland China in this version and is played by international music superstar Jay Chou. Kato had to climb his way out of poverty on pure talent and hard work. He’s a genius inventor, a martial artist and a musician. But because of his lack of privilege, he was relegated to being Reid’s father’s servant. Kato, who did everything for Reid’s father, ends up with a humble life. Reid, who did nothing for his father, inherits his entire empire.
Both Kato and Reid have been defined by wealth or lack of it, and they both want something more out of life. In a way, they both want a childhood they never had, Kato because he was working and Reid because his father was always working. They bond quickly and, because of Kato’s many talents and Reid’s fantastic wealth, they are able to take childhood play to new levels. Instead of playing superheroes, they can become superheroes.
Some have explained away this film’s flaws as Gondry and Rogen selling out to the film studio, but this is very much their movie. Whatever warts there are, it feels genuine to me. Gondry and Rogen created a superhero movie about people who never quite become heroes. Though the Hornet and Kato want to do good, they’re primarily motivated by mischief and a sense of wonder. The duo are in constant amazement that they are allowed to do what they do. Gondry and Rogen are very wealthy young men, who earned their riches being good at being entertaining, not curing cancer. When they are given millions of dollars to make up fantasies and act them out, they might very well relate to their protagonists in this film.
At its best, the film is alive with a giddy sense of play. Many of the action scenes are great, dazzling with some very long takes rarely seen in big budget action films. There is a drawn-out comedic fight that evokes classic cartoon shorts — it’s perfectly executed and would never be found in any other superhero film.
Some reviewers have accused the film of sexism, but I really think that’s not the case. I largely enjoyed “Superbad,” which Rogen and Goldberg also scripted, but found it sexist, not as much for the crude misogyny that the male characters constantly spout (in a totally accurate portrayal of many adolescent males), but for the lack of depth with which the female characters were portrayed. The men were so well realized that we cared about them even though they were jerks. The women were portrayed, Marge Simpson style, as wiser and kinder than the men. This shows some good intentions on the writers’ part, but ultimately has its own glaring problem: Why doesn’t Marge leave Homer, since he is obviously not good for her? Why does the guy in “Superbad” get the girl when he’s an obnoxious, unattractive jerk?
In “The Green Hornet,” Cameron Diaz’s character, Lenore, by contrast, is fairly well realized. She puts up with a certain amount of sexism from the Hornet, but she has her limits. And as soon as she has some leverage over him — he realizes that she is smart and capable and he is neither of those things — she immediately demands the respect she deserves and threatens to sue him for sexual harassment if she gets anything less. As opposed to “Superbad” or any number of films, she doesn’t fall for the protagonist when he stops being a total jerk — they just become friends. And while the male characters leer at her, the camera doesn’t.
Unfortunately, the film does have enough drawbacks to keep it from greatness. The first is that Gondry can’t make the villain terribly menacing, which shouldn’t be all that hard when he’s played by Christoph Waltz from “Inglourious Basterds.” He’s introduced in a scene in which he’s meeting with a group of gangsters who do not respect him and it quickly becomes clear that the meeting will end with him murdering the entire group. Comparisons aren’t always fair, but when you have a character played by an actor Quentin Tarantino made famous, and you introduce him in a scene that invokes Tarantino’s films, it’s hard not to compare the filmmaking. Tarantino would have taken the same scene, script and actors and had us biting our nails in suspense. Gondry had us chuckling nervously. While he does create some nervous excitement — the Hornet and Kato’s first crime-fighting mission is set up delightfully — there really isn’t a whole lot of suspense in the film at all.
Gondry has always had a problem with coherence and the “Hornet” script doesn’t help. The film has some great, big ideas that it doesn’t carry to the finish line. There is a strong implication that the Hornet should leave crime fighting to Kato and be a hero by running a paper that does important investigative journalism. A superhero movie about someone realizing they aren’t a superhero would be pretty cool. However, though this idea is never abandoned fully, the film ends with journalism failing and good old-fashioned action movie violence prevailing. Kato and the Hornet kill the villains instead of exposing and arresting them, which is disappointing even if the killing scenes have the kind of Roald Dahl cartoonishness that only Gondry could make work on screen.
Jay Chou as Kato almost makes it. He’s heavy on charm and he has a great presence, but his lack of English language ability can be a problem. In some scenes, his delivery suggests memorization rather than comprehension, and these moments are jarring and distracting.
Kato is also fully fleshed out and his role in the film is essentially to be superior to the Hornet in all ways — he’s smarter, more charming and he can fight. After living a life being subordinate to Reid’s father, he gets to fully come into his own and use his abilities in a way he enjoys and be recognized for it. And once he’s achieved this, he does not let it go. There’s a great scene in which the Hornet, who has become jealous, asks Kato to make him a cup of coffee (the way he used to for his father) and Kato grabs him and says, “Tell me to make you coffee again and I’ll beat the s–t out of you.”
The film even seems like it’s about to put Kato together with Lenore — he’s sweet and charming and he genuinely listens to her and cares about her. And she shows a good deal of interest in him. Again, this could work very nicely with the idea that the Hornet has to accept he’s not a superhero. He’s just a spoiled rich kid and his sidekick is the real superhero; his sidekick is going to get the girl and he will just have to find something else and accept it. But again, the film inexplicably drops this idea. There’s no real explanation given for Lenore initially appearing to be interested in Kato and then that interest suddenly disappearing.
And ultimately, that’s how the film feels overall — like a big, missed opportunity. There is so much to love, but “The Green Hornet” never fully gets where it’s going.
Ben Hamamoto is a writer born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He edits Nikkei Heritage, the National Japanese American Historical Society’s official magazine, and blogs about pop culture at nichibei.org.