As the Green Hornet passed through numerous creative hands on its long road to the big screen, flitting from Kevin Smith to Stephen Chow and finally to Seth Rogen and Michel Gondry, it was clear that the end result would be seen as a travesty by those purists who still revere the old-time radio show, the Universal serials or the short-lived TV series. At the very least, the finished product would be different in tone from any prior version of the legend. But every new version of the Hornet has deviated from what came before, so why should the newest version be different? In fact, what surprised me when I finally took a look at Gondry's film on DVD wasn't how much it arguably desecrated the character and concept, but my ultimate disappointment that Gondry and Rogen didn't quite mess with it enough.
In a DVD interview, Rogen makes his satiric intentions as the movie's co-writer clear enough. He wanted to send up the superhero genre by grounding it in the insecurities and impulses on which much of his own comedy is based. That is, he wanted to see costumed heroes behave like "real" people, at least as he sees them. Heroes and villains alike are consumed by this core insecurity, which has its biggest impact on the relationship between Britt Reid (Rogen) and Kato (Jay Chou). In Rogen's version, both men have chips on their shoulders and issues with Britt's dead dad (Tom Wilkinson). Moreover, they both have the hots for Britt's new secretary, the amateur criminologist Lenore Case (Cameron Diaz), and that rivalry exacerbates simmering issues between the partners over their contributions to the team. All of this is well and good, and gives Gondry's movie a distinctive vibe among comic-book films. If anything, Rogen is most creative in his approach to Kato, but it's here where his comic vision seems most compromised by perceived audience expectations and the blockbuster expectations of Hollywood.
Rogen and Chou's Kato is a synthesis of different versions of the character, combining the technical wizardly of Keye Luke's Kato from the serials and, most obviously, the martial arts mastery of Bruce Lee's Kato from the TV show. As far as I know, the original radio Kato had none of these attributes, so whatever Rogen does with the character is no more a deviation from some standard than anything the serial and TV writers did. What Rogen does is to turn Kato into something of a nerd. The technical know-how (which extends from car design to coffee making) makes that plausible, but Rogen adds telling touches like a sketchbook Kato fills, not just with mechanical designs, but with drawings of hot chicks ("You pervert!" Britt says with friendly mockery) and drawings of Bruce Lee. Chou's Kato is a bit of a fanboy and a dreamer, and Britt's mad idea of a random night of vigilantism, which escalates into an even madder career as a pseudo-criminal preying on criminals, gives structure to Kato's dreams and resentments while further fueling some of them. This ambitious yet insecure Kato shouldn't be the cool creature Lee was, and for the most part Chou isn't. At the same time, he has to live up to the Lee template because -- let's face it -- Bruce Lee is the main reason why anyone would ever make a Green Hornet movie in modern times. People around the world will be seeing this film to watch an Asian guy do kung fu. So Rogen and Gondry must give the audience what they expect, but Kato's fight scenes are actually some of the film's dullest moments. The most Gondry can do to enliven them is to add video-game effects to make Kato's targets glow as he becomes aware of them in Sherlock Holmes-style analytical fight choreography. The entire logic of Rogen's concept seems to point to Kato not being as good as all that, and it makes more sense when Kato brawls with Britt in more slapstick fashion, with Chou channeling Bert Kwouk rather than Bruce Lee, or when Lenore lays Kato out with a head butt, a knee and a can of Mace. In the end, Rogen and Gondry want to eat their cake and have it too, to do their comedy but give audiences the action they expect.
Rogen's approach really fails when it comes to the villain. Christoph Waltz should have sensed something wrong when Nicolas Cage quit the role just before shooting started, but the Oscar-winner was still new to Hollywood and may have been impressed by the idea that the role of Chudnovsky would be rewritten to suit him. But Chudnovsky starts and stays lame. The idea that he's insecure in his standing as the big bad of L.A. and made more so by the appearance of the Hornet as a supposed rival, doesn't really have any payoff, because Waltz simply doesn't have much comedy to do. The idea that a hero's emergence provokes the emergence of a super-villain was done better just last year in Kick-Ass, and "Bloodnovsky," whose gimmick is simply to dress in red, is a lame supervillain. It may have been Rogen's point that he be lame, but neither he nor Waltz manage to make the lameness funny. Waltz is never as broad or over-the-top as Cage would have been, and that may be what dooms the character. The action picks up toward the end, with plenty of gags involving Kato's souped-up car and whether he incorporated any of Britt's design suggestions, but Waltz has pitifully little to do with it. You could be excused for thinking that a subordinate villain, whose villainy is secret for most of the story, was actually the big bad of the entire piece, while Chudnovsky was just a MacGuffin on legs.
As a performer, Seth Rogen clearly abhors a vacuum. Since I don't go out of my way to watch comedy, this is my first real look at him, and a little of him really goes a long way. He has an interesting persona, but he always does too much: too insistent, too demonstrative, too repetitive. He seems to need to always be saying something, but his invention doesn't match his compulsion. Overall, I can't really fault his interpretation of the Green Hornet, but I can fault his execution of it and Gondry's apparent failure to control him. The film is an interesting misfire, but still a good deal better than I expected.