Seth Rogen gets pounded hard on the Web for daring to take on the role of the Green Hornet. "Explain to me why a chubby putz is playing a superhero?" typed one Internet buzz-killer. Well, the chubby putz gets the last laugh. For starters, Rogen is no longer flabby — a trainer took care of that. And the big-screen Green Hornet, while hardly classic comic-book filmmaking, ain't half bad. There's talent and ambition in this $100 million-plus epic thanks to Rogen and the visual wizardry (in 3D and 2D) of director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), even when the action gets frenetic and the twisty plot goes off the rails.
Rogen, 28, and his Superbad writing partner, Evan Goldberg, have been comics-obsessed since the Hornet seduced their horny teen hearts. Why not? The hero's alter ego, Britt Reid, is a party animal and heir to the newspaper fortune of his father (Tom Wilkinson). When Daddy gets murdered, Britt hires a secretary, Lenore Case (a superfluous Cameron Diaz), who is older and smarter than he is. He teams up with Kato (Taiwanese singer Jay Chou), the family chauffeur, a gadget-maker and martial artist, to exact revenge. They'll fight crime by pretending to be criminals themselves. And they wear masks, just like the Lone Ranger and Tonto. No accident, since George W. Trendle and Fran Striker, who developed The Green Hornet as a 1930s radio serial, had done the same for The Lone Ranger.
The Green Hornet, which predated Batman, has a historic legacy in radio, comics, movies and a cult 1966 TV series that starred Van Williams as Reid and the immortal Bruce Lee as Kato. Rogen didn't want to stink up the franchise by dragging it into dumb farce. But he wanted laughs and an action-buddy vibe in an L.A. underworld. The film lost other directors along the way, including Kevin Smith and, later, Hong Kong master Stephen Chow (Kung Fu Hustle). When Nicolas Cage retreated as Russian villain Benjamin Chudnofsky (he reportedly wanted to use a Jamaican accent, mon), in went Christoph Waltz, fresh from his Oscar for Inglourious Basterds. Good move. Waltz has an early run-in with a newbie thug (a juicy cameo from James Franco), who insults him as a drooling dinosaur. Waltz's deadpan reaction, before the inevitable brutal explosion, is priceless.
Despite the rumors and the graveyard January opening, The Green Hornet doesn't suck. But don't expect it to hang together either, what with the clashing tones and melting logic. Rogen doesn't make much of an action hero, but he plays his lack of superpowers for maximum fun. Chou's physical grace more than compensates. It helps that Gondry can stage a dazzling set piece without editing it into incomprehension (yes, I mean you, Michael Bay). The fight between Britt and Kato is a 3D whiz-bang, with objects flying everywhere. And the Black Beauty, a tricked-out Chrysler Imperial fully loaded with weaponry, could make the Dark Knight green with envy. Gondry developed a visual style called Kato-Vision that lets us see things through Kato's ever-vigilant eyes. The knockout scene shows Kato in superspeed battling villains moving in slow motion. Cool stuff, even as we keep on wishing that the Hornet had more sting in his tail.