While most superhero film adaptations are based on comics, The Green Hornet is based on a 1930s radio serial, which has also had a life in other media including comics, film serials and television serials. The story is another variation on the masked vigilante scenario that contemporary cinema has recently explored from a variety of different angles in films such as The Dark Knight, Watchmen and Kick-Ass. The 2011 film of The Green Hornet actually possesses a bit in common with Kick-Ass in that the titular character does not have any superpowers or special training. However, The Green Hornet is not nearly as dark or transgressive as Kick-Ass, leaving it light on social commentary to instead be a consistently vibrant film with a glorious anarchic spirit. Freed from a lot of the angst and seriousness of other superhero films, The Green Hornet is actually incredibly carefree and enjoyable.
A significant factor for the breezy vibe is that the costumed vigilantes are motivated by little more than the desire to have a bit of fun. The Green Hornet is the alter ego of Britt Reid, the wealthy son of a newspaper publisher, who despite having some fairly low-key Dad issues is closer in mentality to Tony Stark/Iron Man rather than Bruce Wayne/Batman. Seth Rogen (who also co-wrote the script) plays Britt Reid, which is a natural fit as Rogen wonderfully embodies the required likeable slacker persona; actually Rogen has made a career from playing such parts.
The Green Hornet greatly benefits from the inclusion of the character Kato (Jay Chou) who along with Reid’s secretary Lenore Case (Cameron Diaz) supplies Reid with the brains as well as the technology and martial arts skills. Chou is predominantly known throughout Asia for his music career but his charismatic performance as Kato should earn him a big new audience. Part of what makes The Green Hornet so off-kilter is that The Green Hornet is not even the main point of interest as so much of what drives the narrative and makes the action sequences so inventive and fun is Kato. Much of the film’s charm is derived from the growing friendship between Kato and Reid with lots of riffing about whether Kato is The Green Hornet’s partner or sidekick. It is also a nice touch portraying Kato as a Bruce Lee fan since Lee played Kato in the short-lived 1960 television serial.
This is not exactly a subversive film but allowing the supposedly secondary character to take centre stage gleefully undermines superhero narrative conventions and audience expectations. Kato also gets to take part in all the best fight scenes, many of which evoke early Jackie Chan films where the fights were not won according to what weapons were carried in but by what objects in the immediate surroundings could be re-purposed as a weapon. The incredible degree of carnage and destruction also give the action a thrilling inventiveness and playfulness.
Director Michel Gondry is best known for the slightly whimsical and offbeat visual style that he brings to his films, often relying on basic in-camera techniques for special effects and a handcrafted aesthetic to create the quirky mood in his films. With the very notable exception of his 2004 masterpiece Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, his other films have only been moderately interesting despite the clear display of Gondry’s talent behind them. However, in The Green Hornet Gondry has successfully harnessed digital effects, stunt work and his own energetic style extremely effectively. Fans of Gondry’s may recognise techniques such as the kaleidoscope effect that he used in The Chemical Brother’s music video “Let Forever Be”. He also creates an extremely creative sequence with split screens and various impressive scenes with slow motion, where Kato visualises how he will execute an attack before then actually doing it. A similar technique was used in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes but The Green Hornet does it better.
The Green Hornet is a reckless and irresponsible film in the best possible way. As well as feeling a bit like a light-hearted variation of Kick-Ass is also possesses a similar hyperactive intensity to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. And yet, it’s also nothing like those films. It’s very much a Michel Gondry film but it’s also a Seth Rogen film and perhaps most of all a Jay Chou film with a few ingredients borrowed from 1980s Hong Kong action cinema and Dadaism. It’s not a superhero film; it’s an exuberant anti-superhero film that exists with no agenda except to delight.