They say that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. That pretty much sums up me and superhero movies; I keep going to see the damn things, attracted by the latest tantalizing hook, only to wind up feeling like Dr. Doom has trapped me in some fiendishly Sisyphean loop of space and time, where I’m cursed to watch the same story for all eternity.
They’ve snared me with great actors — George Clooney, Heath Ledger, Robert Downey Jr., Kevin Spacey — and raised my hopes with innovative directors — Sam Raimi, Christopher Nolan, Bryan Singer. They’ve played them straight, they’ve tried all dark and serious, and they’ve even gone meta with the almost-but-not-quite parody, “Kick-Ass.” And yet every last one of them evokes nothing but a depressing sense of deja vu, as — yawn — the misunderstood uber- nerd/millionaire playboy yet again beats the crap out of some logorrheic bad guy with worse fashion sense than Cher.
But wait! Here’s quirky indie director Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), and he’s remaking the deliciously retro-crap “Green Hornet!” (Originally a radio series in the 1930s, it’s perhaps best known for its ’60s TV version, which had Bruce Lee as The Hornet’s sidekick Kato.) Gondry’s got the completely nonheroic comedian Seth Rogen in the lead, and Quentin Tarantino’s latest find, Christoph Waltz (“Inglourious Basterds”), as the villain. Surely this will be the superhero film that’s different, all ironic and camp to rectify the ponderous pretentiousness of stuff like “The Dark Knight” or “Watchmen,” right?
OK, this is the point where I start tearing my hair out. “Green Hornet” has one — count ’em: one — idea to call its own: What if the superhero was a shlubb who says “dude!” all the time, and basically has no superpowers other than kicking people in the ‘nads? There’s your movie, Mr. Gondry; carry on for the next two hours. Don’t forget to go heavy on the fireball explosions.
The script, written by Rogen and his buddy Evan Goldberg, pretty much reprises Rogen’s party-animal persona from “Knocked Up” and “Pineapple Express.” He’s meant to be a likable jerk, but sometimes the latter trait is way more clear and present than the former.
Rogen’s character, Britt Reid, is the dissolute son of a media mogul with your standard-issue daddy complex. (See “Tron: Legacy,” “Iron Man 2,” et al.) When his dad passes away, Britt meets his father’s chauffeur/assistant Kato (Jay Chou), who it turns out is also a genius inventor and martial arts whiz. After a few drinks, Britt declares, “Let’s do some crazy sh-t,” and off they roll in Kato’s tricked-out armor-plated Chrysler. One piece of random vigilante justice later, and Britt has decided that being a superhero would be way cool, so he and Kato embark on a wave of crime-fighting — much to the chagrin of criminal mastermind Chudnofsky (Waltz).
The film tries to make a “bromance” out of the Britt-Kato odd couple — with Cameron Diaz thrown in as the love interest — but despite some good lines, it loses out to a film such as “Due Date” (now playing), because while that film concentrates entirely on being funny, “The Green Hornet” is mostly killing time between the CGI-heavy action sequences. The early action scenes do have more of a comic quality to them, while a trash- the-place duel between Britt and Kato shows a clear debt to Blake Edwards’ classic, “The Pink Panther Strikes Again.” (“There is a time and place for everything, Cato . . . “)
One problem here is that Rogen has none of Peter Sellers’ physical skill for pratfalls; a second is that Gondry opts to make the fight scenes straighter, not sillier, as the film progresses, eventually making it look like every other movie where people are shooting out of car windows at each other.
In fact, there is absolutely nothing in the film that looks or feels like Gondry. The director has been known primarily for his love of a funky, DIY aesthetic (see “The Science of Sleep,” “Be Kind Rewind” or his videos for The White Stripes or Beck), but there’s nothing lo-fi about “The Green Hornet,” which looks as generically slick as every other CGI-heavy film with a $100 million-plus budget.
The first 10 minutes of the film were marked by this strange red and green strobe effect, and I thought, “Oh wow, Gondry’s really going out there this time!” Then I realized the subtitles were blurred, got a new pair of 3-D glasses, and everything turned normal again. In the end, the 3-D turned out to be that lame pop-up book effect common to postproduction application of the technology.
“The Green Hornet” hits its nadir during the film’s climax, where it becomes clear how little thought was put into the script. Here we have an epic battle between our heroes and a legion of rapid-firing bad guys who are trying to prevent them from doing, well, what exactly? The Hornet and Kato are desperately trying to reach Reid’s newspaper office, where they intend to plug in a USB device and publish incriminating evidence online, an insanely physical and place-specific goal for delivering digital information. I take it Britt’s superpowers don’t include knowing how to attach a file and hit “send.”