For a genre based on color-splashed frames of superhuman heroics, comic book adaptations sure have gotten heavy-handed in their attempts to break into the mainstream and acquire a measure of cultural significance. Superheroes are the new mythology of the modern age, blah, blah, blah. As a self-professed former fanboy (from back in the day before anyone would have ever used the term “fanboy”), I remember when comic books were nothing more than cheap pieces of escapist fun and the adaptations, like the old Adam West “Batman” series, were camp, pure and simple.
Speaking of West’s “Batman,” a similar crime fighter, “The Green Hornet” battled across several media beginning on the radio in the 1930s, crossing over to comic books and movie serials in the 1940s before appearing on television during the 1960s with Van Williams as the hero and his millionaire publisher alter ego Britt Reid and Bruce Lee as Kato. While “The Green Hornet” never gained the same degree of traction as “Batman,” the television series, which aired for one season (1966-67), earned kitschy cred thanks to Lee’s presence.
It is that geeky haze which likely inspired Seth Rogen and “Superbad” writing partner Evan Goldberg to tackle an updated version of this lesser known dynamic duo with Michel Gondry (“The Science of Sleep”) at the helm and Chinese musician-actor Jay Chou joining the team as Kato. On the surface, nothing about this project makes sense. Channeling the post-slacker comic stylings of Rogen into a heroic fantasy would seem far-fetched even in an alternative reality and Gondry’s precious indie vision clashes wildly with the CGI-dominated frames of most of the current crop of comic book and graphic novel translations.
But it is in these contradictions that “The Green Hornet” finds its groove. The script presents a spoiled rich kid who has no idea of how to be anything but a spoiled kid with crazy dreams. Nothing, not even the death of his upstanding father James Reid (Tom Wilkinson), disrupts his naïveté and sense of wonder, especially in regard to Kato who is more of a walking utility belt than a sidekick. Life, the newspaper business, and crime fighting are just part of Britt’s live action videogame of an existence. And Gondry, with only a few begrudging flourishes, sticks to his ingenious low-fi approach that keeps things breezy and fun, without merely aping our contemporary gameboy conceptions of what superheroes and action sequences are supposed to look like.
The film, even with its acquiescence to the 3D trend, confidently balances on the tightrope between the campy hijinks of the 1960s and mythologic franchise-frenzy that grips filmmaking today. It doesn’t mean a thing, but Gondry sure does make it swing. (tt stern-enzi)