Feature: The Green Hornet

by April 19, 2011

Review: The Green Hornet
By Deborah Lazaroff

I’ve been a film scholar now for 42 years, and it’s an avocation I’ll pursue until I die. That said, there are currently only two people who will get me into a cinema on opening night. One of these is Quentin Tarantino and the other is Christoph Waltz.

When I went to the opening night of Inglourious Basterds, it wasn’t just to see Tarantino’s latest and—so far—greatest film. Of course that was a thrill in itself. More than anything else, Tarantino is a gifted writer, and I knew I could expect absolutely brilliant dialogue. I also knew this film was an audacious step in a different direction, and that Tarantino would not just be thinking outside the box of the war film genre but blowing it up entirely.

But I had another reason for attending the opening night: Christoph Waltz. When the July/August 2009 issue of Film Comment arrived in my mailbox, Herr Waltz was on the cover, in Landa’s SS dress uniform, and there was something in the man’s eyes that told me he would loom large in cinema after this film. After 42 years you develop an instinct for these things, and I was proved right. So it was without hesitation that I was at my local cinema for the initial midnight screening of The Green Hornet in all its 3D, IMAX glory.

I was a fan of the original Green Hornet TV Series with Van Williams and Bruce Lee, and more than 40 years later it still looks as good as it did when I was 10 (coincidentally, Quentin Tarantino borrowed its Al Hirt’s opening theme the TV series for the Crazy 88s fight sequence in Kill Bill Volume 1.) The film is loosely based on the series, but obviously tailored for Seth Rogen’s schlumpfy slacker persona. Rogen plays Britt Reid, the shiftless wastrel son of local newspaper magnate James Reid (serviceably played by the talented Tom Wilkinson, who has been depressingly underemployed of late.) Britt and his father are estranged, to say the least, because Dad is a dedicated arbiter of community justice who strongly disapproves of his son’s aimless existence.

Then Dad is found dead, and Britt assumes ownership of his newspaper empire. Completely clueless about what this entails, he relies on Mike Axford, his father’s managing editor (the equally underemployed Edward James Olmos). Britt moves back into the family mansion and fires all but one of his father’s servants—the mysterious Kato (Chinese pop star Jay Chou in his US acting debut.) Kato not only makes a mean cappuccino, he is also the caretaker of a remarkable number of interesting gadgets, and of course The Black Beauty, a tricked-out 1966 Chrysler Imperial Crown (just like the one in the original series) that’s as much a star of the film as any of the actors.

It’s never quite explained why Kato has been developing all these superhero gadgets for Britt’s dad. “Your father was a complicated man,” Kato tells Britt and nothing else, but the car and the gadgets are among the chief rewards of the film, and of course they inspire Britt to team up with Kato as a crime fighting duo (why let them go to waste, after all?) After rejecting Britt’s suggestion of the “Green Bee”, the Green Hornet is born, complete with trench coat, eye mask and fedora, just like the original. Kato follows suit in a chauffeur’s outfit similar to Bruce Lee’s original. The two decide to masquerade as criminals to launch their vigilante campaign, both to gain greater access to the criminal underworld and keep their identities secret.

While there are moments of forced Rogen humor, overall the interplay between these two is lovely and often quite entertaining. Chou’s wry reticence is an effective counterpoint to Rogen’s boisterous comic persona. Introduced into the mix is Cameron Diaz as Lenore Case, Britt’s secretary at the newspaper and a source of conflict for the two crime fighters because not only is she on a quest to expose the Green Hornet, the two are competing for her affections.

Britt and Kato soon target underworld kingpin Benjamin Chudnofsky, Christoph Waltz in his first screen appearance since his phenomenal Oscar-winning role as Colonel Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds. We meet Chudnofsky in one of the film’s best (if not the best) scenes, when he’s going head to head with nightclub owner Danny “Crystal” Cleer (James Franco in an uncredited cameo) for opening his establishment his establishment without Chudnofsky’s permission and required cut of the proceeds.

Looking exceptionally smart with his close-cropped hair and beard, Waltz’s presence is palpably electric from the start. That electricity is fueled by an undercurrent of simmering tension that fills the air from the moment of his clipped delivery of the correct pronunciation of his name (“Chud-NOF-sky”) through the abuse heaped on him by Cleer—he’s too old, he should retire, he dresses like a disco Santa Claus (in actuality Waltz looks quite dashing in his black brocade suit and black shirt)—so when Chudnofsky finally explodes, pulling his double-barreled pistol, killing all of Cleer’s bodyguards and leaping from his seat to thrust that ultra-cool gun against Cleer’s temple—it’s as though a line that had been straining under increasing pressure suddenly snaps, and we get our first taste of genuine menace bordering on psychosis.

As he does in every role he plays—from the bright but troubled young man in Kopfstand through the sensually wicked König der Letzten Tage all the way to his most recent role as the complex and mercurial August in Water for Elephants—Waltz brings a quirky energy and seemingly endless vitality to what is in essence a grossly underwritten role. Waltz’s greatest talent is his remarkable ability to bring the most elemental essence of each of his characters to sudden and vibrant life, so much so that they seem to leap off the screen and take hold of the viewer, illuminating aspects of emotional truth so starkly that they feel immediately, genuinely real.

His Chudnofsky/Bloodnofsky is no exception. After the explosive climax of that first scene, we lean that Chudnofsky is indeed in a midlife crisis, which precipitates the change of name as well as a change of wardrobe (and it should be stated here that Boodnofsky’s red leathers are most fetching.) It’s unfortunate that this crisis of character isn’t more fully explored because the scenes in which Waltz appears are suffused with a delightfully eccentric and violently comic chaos.

But then Waltz’s character isn’t the only one underwritten. Diaz’s Lenore suffers from the same dilemma, and when she’s not precipitating the conflict between the two leads, she’s otherwise set adrift within the story. As Britt delves deeper into the criminal underworld, he learns that at its root is the corrupt district attorney Frank Scanlon (David Harbour), who killed Britt’s father when he refused to further participate in the cover-up of criminal activity to prop Scanlon’s career. There’s an action packed race to get Scanlon’s confession back to the newspaper that involves numerous crashed cars, trucks and SUVs as well as the complete destruction of the Black Beauty, although not before all its built-in guns (front, back, roof and doors) are emptied.

The Green Hornet was written by Rogen and his long-time creative partner, Evan Goldberg, and directed by Michel Gondry, the creative mind behind Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep. Unfortunately, Gondry’s unique talents are put to little use in this curious mixture of action and comedy. The only truly imaginative visual he conjures up is a rather extended leap forward by Kato in which he appears to be caught on a current of air that propels him forward. That it works exceptionally well in 3D suggests that had it been decided from the start that the film be shot for 3D, Gondry might have found innovative ways to make that particular effect enhance the action more creatively. Indeed, he would have been exceptionally suited to the task, especially in the action sequences. As it stands, however, the post-production addition of 3D really adds little to the film.

For months, The Green Hornet was plagued by post-production rumors of a potential disaster, so it was a pleasant surprise to find it both entertaining and engaging. Seth Rogen is a nice guy, after all, and no one wants to see him fail. In the end the elements all fall in place. And there’s little doubt that one of the very best of those elements is Christoph Waltz’s Chudnofsky/Bloodnofsky. Rogen’s decision to cast Waltz as the villain of the piece was a wise one indeed.

Deborah Lazaroff is the author of Robert Siodmak: A Critical Biography, considered by many film scholars to be the definitive English-language study of the German director’s life and work. A professional writer for 30 years, her work covers a wide range of subjects including film, politics, history and the global economy.

Christoph Waltz Fans