I've said it before, I'll say it again. January is a wasteland at the multiplex. The studios are too busy concentrating on award buzz for the films released in December. Some of these films receiving buzz may get a wider release in January, to capitalize on the nominations, leading to more box office, keeping the film current and viable until the big daddy of award shows, the Oscars. They simply don't have time to adequately promote a new wide release. For that reason, January (and early September) is a dumping ground; any film getting a wide release is a film the studio has zero confidence in. These films have been "delayed" a few times, or you might see a notice in the newspaper indicating the "studio declined to screen the film in time for a review". These are bad signs but generally good indicators you need to stay clear.
For this reason, we have "Season of the Witch", "The Dilemma" and "The Green Hornet" hitting screens in our neighborhood.
By late January, the fervor has cleared and they begin to release new films they have time to get behind, new films they expect to see generate revenue. It is generally safer to go back to the multiplex. "The Green Hornet", the new superhero adaptation starring Seth Rogen, Jay Chou and Cameron Diaz is being released in the middle of January. It presents a conundrum.
Columbia Pictures must be trying to fill a void with a brilliant counter-programming move. Well, yes and no. There are a lot of reasons to think "Hornet" might be the exception to the rule. And it is better than most of the films released in January. But it is still not very good. And paying extra to see the film in 3-D sort of rubs salt into the wounds, making an OK film even worse. Don't even think of seeing this film in IMAX 3-D. It is not worth it.
The first reason you might suspect the film will be OK? It seems to have been a passion project for Seth Rogen. He has been everywhere, promoting the film, he has talked about it while promoting other films, he lost a lot of weight to play the role, and he even wrote the script with his longtime writing partner Evan Goldberg. All of this points to a famous comedy star trying to break out of the confines of the genre and work in a new and exciting area. I am sure he saw Robert Downey Jr.'s current rise to uber-stardom as "Iron Man" and wanted to give it a try.
Rogen clearly wants people to enjoy this passion project as much as he does. But there are certain things we expect from a superhero movie. You want a believable back-story leading to the hero's creation or emergence. You want great action scenes mixed with a little humor (maybe) to keep things moving. You want a believable, scary villain. The major problem with "The Green Hornet" is the mix of action and humor is completely, horribly off balance. Much of the film involves Britt Reid (Rogen) having discussions with Kato (Jay Chou), Lenore Case (Diaz) and Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz, "Inglourious Basterds") in which Reid takes on the laid-back persona Rogen has perfected and has a riff with his co-stars about something, anything. These moments almost seem ad-libbed and pointless. In fact, in many instances, the person Reid is having a conversation with doesn't seem to get or be in on the joke. This creates an odd disconnect; Rogen seems like he is trying to be funny, what he says seems like it should be funny, it would be funny in "Knocked Up" or "Superbad", but he is more often than not delivering these lines to a brick wall.
Rogen is smart enough to realize he isn't going to be able to pull of the lion's share of the action. So they found Jay Chou, a Taiwanese actor, to play Kato. His action scenes are good. But every time he delivers a line of dialogue, it is almost painful to watch and listen to. I highly suspect he had a dialogue coach standing off screen feeding him the lines phonetically. What this doesn't do is help him understand the meanings of the lines. His performance is a bit like watching Robert DeNiro, Michael Phelps or January Jones host "Saturday Night Live". During every live segment, they read their lines from a teleprompter unable to infuse the dialogue with any meaning. They are all clearly out of their element and their comfort zone.
The scenes between Rogen and Diaz are just confusing and painful to witness. Reid, a former playboy, openly ogles Diaz's Lenore Case, his new assistant. Every time they talk, Rogen begins the conversation with an awkward come on she ignores. This banter goes on for a few minutes before they get to the reason for the conversation. This happens every time they talk and it is never remotely funny. Even worse, there are similar scenes between Kato and Lenore, which are also painful, but for other reasons. Really, the dialogue seems like it was written by a twelve-year-old fan-boy for other twelve-year-olds. I half expected Rogen's character to say "ass" and then start giggling madly.
Rogen realizes the villain needs to be scary and menacing. The writers address this in their typical way; the villain discusses the issue himself with others who question his effectiveness. This is actually an amusing idea and the funniest running gag in the film. When we first meet Chudnofsky (Waltz) he barges into the nightclub of a rival who criticizes his lack of scariness. But there are many examples throughout the film illustrating this Chudnofsky's ruthlessness. Yet, the villain still has a complex about it. The role is a balancing act. On the one hand, Waltz has to reveal the character's self-doubt, playing the part a tad seriously for us to get the joke. But he also has to be tongue-in-cheek throughout. Waltz achieves this balance and is the best thing in the film.
For all of the exposition, all of the discussions in the film, there are quite a few things left unanswered, or not given enough attention or explanation. The most important of these would have to be why the Green Hornet feels he has to fight crime while portraying a criminal. They go so far as to make it look like the Green Hornet shoots Reid. There are a few scenes in which Reid talks with someone about a new aspect of his mission as the Green Hornet. They discuss a few options and then Reid latches on to one, smiles broadly and shouts, "That's it. Good job my friend". Rogen smiles goofily and they are off. It seems as though Rogen expects us to take his overt enthusiasm as reason enough for this idea or theory to exist. If these moments existed with other scenes depicting a better realization, they would work. Rogen's fan-boy enthusiasm is not enough. These moments seem intended to illustrate the Green Hornet's creation, but in reality they simply amount to a series of exclamations.
One of the primary reasons I thought "Hornet" might be a surprise is the director, Michel Gondry. Best known for "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind", Gondry is a strange choice to helm a super hero film. I was hoping the combination would be more strange-good and less strange-Ang Lee-"Incredible Hulk". His work is actually a little of both. There are a few strange, odd touches in the film. When Kato and Reid are fighting some street thugs, Kato kicks one and he goes flying over the trunk of a car. The trunk seems to multiply and extend almost as though Gondry is trying to give the impression of 3-D in a 2-D film. It is a fun, interesting sort of retro idea.
Gondry wants to present a more realistic vision. At times, dust floats through the air highlighted by a ray of sunshine, at others, the sun causes light flares as the camera passes. Both of these touches make the film seem more real and personal, but they also obscure the 3-D elements in the film. If the 3-D added depth to the film, it wouldn't matter that the new process doesn't enhance the action. But it doesn't, so you kind of want, and expect the 3-D to help the action pop. But because Gondry seems to relish using corny, older techniques to give the illusion of 3-D, these moments lose any power they may have had.
"The Green Hornet" is a disappointment and further proof you should stay away from any studio film receiving a wide release in early January.