Thursday, January 13, 2011

This 'Hornet' has no sting

Seth Rogen doesn't cut it as a superhero, and the movie scores only fitfully as a comedy.

January may be the oddest of all movie months. In much of the country, several of the more interesting movies of the previous year are just beginning to reach theaters. When it comes to new releases, however, the picture is grimmer. Many movies that open in January arrive with a question trailing in their wake: Why didn't we see this during the summer or at some other peak movie-going period?

That's certainly the case with The Green Hornet, a superhero movie that would seem better suited to the sweltering days of summer than to the frozen hours of mid-winter matinees.

The Green Hornet has a lengthy history. It began as a radio serial in 1936, found life as a comic book and also enjoyed a brief run on television during the '60s with the legendary Bruce Lee portraying Kato, the Hornet's sidekick. This new big-screen version reportedly went through a variety of incarnations before it fell into the laps of actor Seth Rogen and director Michel Gondry.

Rogen, a veteran of such Judd Apatow comedies as Knocked Up and co-writer of hits such as Superbad and Pineapple Express, is certainly an unlikely candidate to play a superhero, and Gondry, known for visual creativity (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep) isn't exactly a renowned master of the blockbuster form.

But back to January. After spending two hours watching this re-tooled and needlessly 3-D version of The Green Hornet, I began to conjecture about why it has arrived in January.

Although Rogen wrote the script with his partner Evan Goldberg, it works only fitfully as comedy.

But wait, as they say on those late-night TV commercials: There's more.

When it comes to action, particularly as the movie limps toward its finale, Gondry sacrifices wit for the usual collection of fender-bending and explosive noise, none of it handled with special aplomb. And Gondry's trademark creativity seems more hinted at than expressed as bodies fall like overly ripe fruit from burdened trees.

At heart, The Green Hornet is an origins story. Rogen's Brit Reid suffers at the hands of his abusive newspaper publisher father (Tom Wilkinson). Having reached his 20s, Reid is skilled only at spending daddy's money on women and parties. When his father passes away, Brit finds himself in control of Los Angeles' Daily Sentinel, an influential paper. He also develops a relationship with Kato (Jay Chou), a creative mechanic and inventor with martial arts skills. Together they carry out a prank, and The Green Hornet is born. Kato signs on as sidekick and principal butt-kicker.

No superhero movie can survive purely as a bromance - even a testy one that makes Kato more assertive than the usual sidekick. Enter an underutilized Cameron Diaz, as the woman Britt hires to be his secretary.

Rogen, who does his usual shtick albeit with annoyingly manic bursts of energy, flops as a superhero, even one who's designed to play against the usual cliches. The Green Hornet's claim to fame involves the way the public perceives him. The Hornet cultivates the image of a bad guy in order to do good.

This brings us to the subject of villainy, an essential ingredient in any comic-book movie. Christoph Waltz, who won an Oscar for playing a soft-spoken, sadistic Nazi in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, portrays Chudnofsky, the evil Russian crime czar who rules Los Angeles. Too bad Waltz's best scene arrives at the very beginning of the movie when he squares off with an aspiring gangster (James Franco in cameo). That scene - full of self-conscious bluster and exaggerated menace -- suggests what the movie might have been.

This being a slow movie month, The Green Hornet probably will enjoy a decent opening weekend before fading, but, based on what I saw, I put myself in the side of those that wouldn't mind seeing The Green Hornet vanish into the mists of pop cultural history with the speed at which his car of choice -- the fabled Black Beauty -- tears up the road.

This Hornet's got no buzz.

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