Britt Reid is a millionaire, the son of the editor of The Daily Sentinel, one of Los Angeles’ last independent papers. For decades The Sentinel has stood for truth and integrity in a difficult and uncertain world, with Britt’s father the unflinching moral compass the paper the steered itself by. Britt Reid is a dreamer, a child who wants to be a hero but every time he tries to help the weak or oppressed finds himself in front of his father, receiving another tongue lashing and losing another toy. Britt Reid is an idiot, channelling decades of resentment into a lifestyle of drink, parties and debauchery until his father dies and he finds himself in charge of the Sentinel, in need of a purpose and with a new best friend, Kato, his father’s mechanic. Kato is a martial arts expert, an engineering genius and a man of endless tact and diplomacy. Britt is a millionaire who wants to be a hero. Both men want something more, both men feel unfulfilled by their lives and both find themselves faced with a choice between the dangerous unknown and the endless, safe, predictable known.
Sometimes the line between idiots and heroes is paper thin.
The Green Hornet is a supremely odd choice for a blockbuster. The character is obscure, straddling the line between radio-based Mysterymen like The Shadow and the four-colour heroes like Batman and Superman and his most notable appearances in the last thirty years have been a short-lived TV series starring Bruce Lee as Kato and as the subject of an unproduced Kevin Smith-scripted reboot that has recently surfaced as a comic. Even the idea is a little off, a little too involved; a millionaire newspaper mogul pretends to be a villain to be given the impunity to act like the hero he and his martial arts expert engineering genius sidekick need to do their job. Even it’s road to the screen has been rocky, with critically acclaimed Chinese director Stephen Chow initially attached to direct, then star as Kato, then depart to be replaced by Michel Gondry. Gondry’s work has a reputation for being dream-like, playful and even a little wistful and that proves a surprisingly good fit for a man who fights crime wearing a green suit and a domino mask.
Gondry makes three supremely clever directing choices which establish the film’s visual identity very quickly. The first is that this is Los Angeles, plain and simple. There’s no over-stylised Gothic architecture, no perpetual night or endless neon. This is the same city that most American movies takes place in, memorably described in Warren Ellis and JH Williams III’ Desolation Jones as a ‘supermodern city’, a collection of towns thinly strung together by roads with no real identity of it’s own. Gondry trakes that idea and runs with it, turning Britt Reid’s Los Angeles into a city we all know, a city that’s recognisable, that we’ve all been to even without travelling there.
His second clever choice is to get out of the characters’ way and place his visual flair at their command instead of vice versa. The film’s most memorable visual is ‘Kato vision’ where we see the world from the intrepid chauffeur’s point of view. Time slows down, environments extend, weapons flash red and he moves with casual, water-like grace around opponents trapped in slow motion. It’s balletic without being flashy and as well as showing off Jay Chou’s skills it’s also beautifully placed within the film as a visual gag. In the climactic fight, Britt uses the same technique, threats flashing green as he moves in slow motion through the shattered office of The Sentinel. Except, where Kato is graceful and subtle, Britt is burly, direct and ultimately, fails. The special effect becomes a means of illuminating character as well as action and that’s surprisingly rare, to say nothing of welcome.
The final choice Gondry makes is to play the action absolutely straight, no mean feat for a film where the main characters drive a car equipped with sleep gas, missile and heavy weaponry. The central idea is ludicrous but that lunacy is presented with no front, no hint of playfulness unless it’s absolutely needed. The final running battle through the streets of LA and into the Sentinel building is visceral, nasty and most impressively, has a genuine air of tension to it. No one feels safe and both Britt and Kato are pushed to, and beyond, their limits. In a lesser film, this would be the defining moment, the turning point beyond which the main character learns an important lesson and their life changes for the better. Here, the scene leads to two moments of genuinely surprising violence and one of absurd humour. Britt and Kato have blood on their hands and whilst Gondry never lets us forget that, he also never lets us forget that some of it is there by accident.
This is the true genius of the film and it lies not only with Gondry but with Seth Rogen, Jay Chou and Evan Goldberg. Rogen and Goldberg wrote the script and it neatly fits with, and subverts, Rogen’s ‘idiot manchild’ persona. Britt Reid is, as the film opens, an idiot with aspirations of heroism. Britt Reid is, as the film closes, an idiot with aspirations of heroism who has taken maybe a step closer to them. Rogen’s endless, puppy-like enthusiasm is a perfect basis for the character and the script neatly shows not only how Britt needs other people to make his ideas work but also to make him whole. Kato is his competence and bravery whilst Lenore, his criminologist secretary is his intelligence and pragmatism. The film follows Reid as he slowly realises that he’s incomplete, that he needs this people but even putting that to one side? He’s still the ideas man, still the richest person in the room and still Britt Reid. It’s a difficult line to walk, and Rogen combines genuine physical presence with comic enthusiasm and timing. He also, to his eternal credit, spends the entire film spotlighting his co star.
Jay Chou is extraordinary, and if there’s any justice at all this will be the film that propels Chou to stardom in the West. He’s the perfect foil for Rogen, small where’s he’s large, calm where he’s maniacal and there’s something inheretly funny about watching the two of them walk into a room together. Chou plays Kato as everything Britt thinks he is but isn’t; sophisticated, suave, charming, heroic but crucially both he and the script give the character more depth than that. Kato is endlessly, ridiculously competent but is perpetually in Britt’s shadow and the tension that causes is nicely played and explored. In a kinder world, Kato would be the hero but a kinder world wouldn’t need the Green Hornet at all. Kato needs people, like Britt, but unlike Britt doesn’t need them to be complete. Instead, Kato needs people because for all his skills, without friends, without Britt, without the Green Hornet and Kato, he’s invisible. It’s a subtle character path for a film like this and Chou plays it beautifully. Rogen and Goldberg’s script plays with it too, culminating in a moment where both men realises the Green Hornet is now much, much larger than them. Even if Kato named him. Which Britt refuses to believe.
That idea; that the Green Hornet as an identity, a concept, is larger than Britt is something the script circles back to again and again. Kato names him, the Sentinel pushes him into the public consciousness on Britt’s orders and Lenore, Britt’s secretary, unknowingly provides his long term strategy. It’s a neat idea that adds a welcome shot of unease to the film and also gives Diaz the best role she’s had in years. Lenore is smart, competent, entirely independent and is far less prepared to put up with the main characters’ nonsense than the normal female lead in movies of this type. She has easy, natural chemistry with both Chou and Rogen and deserves to be given much more to do in any sequel. Likewise, the always impressive Edward James Olmos brings integrity and weight to his scenes as Michal Axford, the Sentinel’s editor and a voice of authority Britt spends most of the film gleefully ignoring. Together, they conspire, some knowingly, some not, to create a villain who’s secretly a hero, a crime lord who has no idea what he’s doing, a hero far less dangerous than his sidekick. But he is a hero, and that’s a start.