The Green Hornet

The Green Hornet by Ed Gambichler (co-host of the flicks picks)

“Let’s roll, Kato” – Britt Reid

Whenever movie makers have to deal with casting decisions based upon characters portrayed in well known properties ( whether it be literature, television series, or video games ), they must always confront that nearly impossible task of facing down the invisible dragon that is the nemesis of film making: audience expectations.  And there is no greater hurdle in this process than comic book adaptations. It is one thing for directors and producers to reach the conclusion that an actor or actress is the “One” ( based on his/ her audition, their chemistry between themselves and their co- stars, and how they fit in the overall aesthetic of the film )….it is quite another when those decisions have been made for them by the very audience they are trying to reach ( even before one frame of film is committed to the “can” and shown on screen ). It places them in a box that asks them to forgo their personal vision as well as their sense of originality and daring and settle on the “safe” route of acquiescing to what the “fan-boys or fan-girls” want. And if the filmmakers were to go ahead and cast an actor or actress that the fans perceive to be “totally out of left field”, then the entire production can be expected to be criticized and in a sense “condemned” on every blog pertaining to the genre (critical to a production which is, in a sense, totally dependent on and at the mercy of “good word of mouth”. So one could only imagine the filmmakers trepidation in announcing Seth Rogen ( a traditionally perceived comedy star ) and Jay Chou ( an unknown Taiwanese pop singer) in the respective roles of the cult comic book characters The Green Hornet and his partner Kato.

The Green Hornet was first conceived as a radio serial by George W. Trendel and Fran Striker ( who were also responsible for the creation of the Lone Ranger as well ) with input by station director James Jewell. The premise centers around the character of Britt Reid, a newspaper publisher by day and the costumed masked vigilante The Green Hornet at night. He is aided by his similarly masked partner and Asian manservant Kato. Together they fight the corruption that plagues the city of Los Angeles by taking on crime bosses, utilizing exceptional hand to hand fighting skills ( especially Kato ) and a technologically tricked out and weaponized vehicle ( tin the form of  a Chrysler Imperial Crown ) dubbed “The Black Beauty”.

Of course, there have been many comic characters who have worn a mask or driven a souped up muscle car ( for instance The Spirit, Batman, and The Phantom to name a few ). However, what makes the characters of Green Hornet and Kato so unique is the ingenious concept twist that they are perceived by their city and it’s citizens as members of the same crime underworld whose very grip the two swore to free them from. By being known at large as one of the “bad guys”, it makes it easier for the masked duo to infiltrate various criminal organizations and gain access to information that they would not normally be privy to if they existed on the legit side of the Law. This brilliantly subversive concept allows the duo to take down the “Mob” from within (thru misinformation and bogus business deals they set up with these mobsters) and not put innocents in harm’s way while doing it. The Green Hornet  radio show was also spun off into a collection of two 1940’s film serials ( starring Gordon Jones in the first and Warren Hull in the second as Britt Reid and Keye Luke as Kato in both films). The character appeared in comic books, and (in its most famous incarnation ) a 1966 television show. The series achieved cult status …..not due to actor Van Williams portrayal of the title character, but by the introduction to American viewing audiences of legendary martial arts icon Bruce Lee as Kato (  so popular in the role that overseas Asian markets advertised the series as “The Kato Show”……a move that would springboard Lee’s Hong Kong action film career ).

Since the early 1990’s, Hollywood had tried unsuccessfully to launch a film adaptation of the character. One of the first pair of actors to be named in connection to the roles were George Clooney ( who even announced the project during a guest appearance on The Tonight Show )and Jason Scott Lee ( who had played the lead role in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story which included a scene depicting the actor in costume as Kato, filming a scene on The TV series set ). The movie was to be directed by then music video director Michel Gondry (known for his emphasis on visual effects…..most notably pioneering the “bullet time” sequences made famous by the Wachowski Bros. film, “The Matrix”.  The project changed many hands, from Gondry to director Kevin Smith, to  actor-director Stephen Chow( star of Kung Fu Hustle in the role of Kato ), and actors Greg Kinnear and Jake Gyllenhaal . The production finally landed back in Gondry’s lap, giving star billing to the unlikely pair of comedy actor Seth Rogen and the relatively unknown Jay Chou.

First off, I have to say , this adaptation works for me. Most of the fans feared that this comic book property would be dumbed down as a “buddy comedy” rather than a version that reflected the serious noir tone of the TV series. But then again, that’s my point. The TV series ( in my opinion ) had already satisfied the fan base’s expectations for the characters to a point where I felt that Rogen, Chou, Gondry and writer Evan Goldberg really had nothing to prove to them. Much like I didn’t feel disappointed when Superman Returns fell short of my hopes for it to be great movie since the first Superman movie starring Christopher Reeve more than fulfilled my wishes for a faithful adaptation of The Man of Steel ( even going so far as to set the bar for other future comic book film adaptations ). There is no way Chou can live up to the impact Bruce Lee made in the role of Kato. Nor can Rogen be expected to be taken seriously as a straight up matinee action movie star of Van Williams’ caliber. However the actors, as well as the filmmakers, succeed in making their version exist as its own “animal”. What makes it easier is that it’s subversive concept is what makes the Green Hornet the unique property it is. The actor’s being cast for the characters of Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent, for example, must live up to or meet the same fan expectations associated with Batman or Superman respectively. However, the Green Hornet  and Kato are cult heroes……not cultural icons. The alter egos of Britt Reid and Kato are not so ingrained in the pop culture psyche, that they must adhere to a set list of criteria that demands a specific actor. Bottom line:  everyone knows who Batman and Superman is. Who Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent is. Even if you’re a comic geek or a random filmgoer. Only a handful know who The Green Hornet and Kato is. There isn’t a “general” audience expectation of who should play these roles, and that is what Rogen and Chou have going for them.

In this adaptation of the title character, Britt Reid is the wealthy and spoiled son of a disapproving father, a respected newspaper publisher.  At a young age, Britt had a heroic impulse to help others. This impulse led to a fight at school where he rushed to the aid of a classmate being bullied in the schoolyard. However, instead of  praising young Britt for coming to the aid of others, he sharply criticized the young boy for being a problem ( an incident which would caused Britt to spend the rest of his adult life behaving irresponsibly and being a burden to his father…….causing a deep rift between the two ). On his way home from another one of his decadent parties, however, he learns that his father has suddenly passed away due to an allergic reaction to a bee sting. Now the sole owner of his father’s newspaper, The Daily Sentinel, Britt finds himself having to live up to the legacy that his dear old Dad has established. However, knowing that he’ll never measure up to this standard, he deals with it by getting drunk and firing most of the housekeeping staff of his father’s mansion. He wakes up expecting a cup of his favorite coffee,but finds that it is nothing like the cup of Joe he normally enjoys.  When he realizes that he fired the one person capable of making the fantasic brew, he promptly hires the servant back, a young asian man named Kato. Kato, a mechanical genius, was hired by Britt’s father to maintain his rare collection of automobiles. Soon, the two bond over a couple bottles of beer and their mutual resentment of Britt’s father. This resentment leads to a bit of midnight vandalism on their part of a statue of Britt’s father the citizens had commissioned to commemorate his crusade against citywide criminal corruption.  During this act, the two witness a young couple about to be mugged by a roaming street gang. Rediscovering his childhood impulse to help others, Britt confronts the gang….but is immediately overpowered by them. To Britt’s surprise, Kato comes out of nowhere and dispatches each member of the gang with martial arts expertise backed up by lightning fast precision. Realizing that both he and Kato can continue on their mission, fighting the same corruption in Los Angeles his father tried to expose, Britt creates the persona of The Green Hornet. He also comes up with the plan to for Kato and him to pose as criminal masterminds, in order to get close to the city’s real criminal element. They are successful at first, making a name for themselves and having their exploits grab headlines in the The Daily Sentinel. However, they soon show up on the radar of the murderous and up and coming gang leader, Benjamin Chudnofsky ( played by Christoph Waltz….coming off his recent Oscar win as Col. Hans Landa in director Quentin Tarantino’s film, Inglourious Basterds. Also, their new partnership ( as well as their friendship ) is soon threatened by the introduction of Britt’s new secretary at the newspaper office, Leonore Case ( played by Cameron Diaz ). They both engage in a jealous romantic rivalry between each other over Ms. Case, who’s knowledge of the methods of various criminal organizations ( thru her college courses ) they solicit.  The two must overcome the fallout of their friendship to deal with the growing threat Chudnofsky’s growing power lust poses to the Los Angeles.

The chemistry of the two principal leads is spot on. Jay Chou (tasked to fill the shoes of the late great Bruce Lee ) acquits himself well in the role of Kato. He also holds his own with Seth Rogen in the films more comedic scenes ( in which Rogen is dependable as always ). And as Chudnofsky, Christoph Waltz displays the appropriate balance of both menace and impeccable comic timing.

The only one who falls short in my opinion is Cameron Diaz, although I feel it is not her fault due to being saddled with the largely thankless role of the “love interest” ( which, unfortunately, every production team feels the need to burden an action film with). Finally, this is one of those rare film productions that actually took the time and made a concentrated effort to make the 2D to 3D post film conversion a success. When the 3D effect is married to Michel Gondry’s inspired visual effects, the results are worth the admission price. Although I will always recognize the 1966 T.V. series as being the one true adaptation of the character, that fact didn’t prevent me from enjoying this film adaptation for what it was.