“The Green Hornet” is one of the odder studio releases in some time. While bumbling superhero comedies have their own formula — and much of “The Green Hornet” adheres to it — the familiar backdrop does provide director Michel Gondry an excuse to mess around. The resulting camera placements and special effects don’t always serve the narrative, but he does succeed in creating an amusing collage of image and sound that fits Gondry’s personal brand of storytelling.
When Gondry introduces hero Britt Reid (Seth Rogen) as he’s throwing a house party, it feels like the director has decided to reinvent the idea of a Seth Rogen comedy by alternately speeding up and slowing down the film to create the sense of drifting through the character’s aimless life. Inspired moments like this display an unlikely marriage of cinematic ingenuity and cliché. That’s a tough proposition and the tales of production difficulties plaguing “The Green Hornet” testify to the challenges associated with making it work. Yet whenever Gondry manages to defy formula, he pays tribute to his entire career.
That said, it’s not a great movie. Often it’s not even a good one, but it comes alive when Gondry finds an opening to let his style take over. Featuring some of the best live-action 3-D effects since that technique became an industry standard (even though it was converted to that format in post-production), “The Green Hornet” contains sensory-overload action scenes that feature “Kato-vision,” a slo-mo means of conveying Kato’s speedy method for evaluating his attackers before quickly dispensing of them. It’s Gondry’s revenge on the Wachowski Bros.’ famous “bullet-time” action choreography – a style that Gondry pioneered in a1998 Smirnoff Vodka commercial, shortly before it became credited to “The Matrix.”
Another sequence references Gondry’s music video work, building on his 1997 video for Cibo Matto’s “Sugar Water,” which features a split screen of the same take simultaneously played in two directions. Here, as word of the Green Hornet’s crime fighting spreads, the split screen grows continually fragmented until it’s filled with activity, forming a chaotic presentation of mass communication.
Later, Gondry literally takes us into the hero’s brain, using multiple layers of imagery to replicate a confusing pile-up of information blending together at once, a remarkable psychoanalytic visualization that suggests the Salvador Dalí landscapes in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound.” Only a pop artist like Gondry could elevate this material to such enterprising heights before allowing it to crash back to Earth.
But crash it does. With an uninspired, utterly non-threatening villain (Christoph Waltz, providing a watered-down version of his Oscar-winning Nazi role in “Inglorious Basterds”) and redundant gags about Britt’s physical limitations as a hero, “The Green Hornet” lacks polish.
Gondry’s career in music videos displayed a cinematic vision that suggested a new generation of directors who were freed by the non-linear form. That was certainly true with his biggest success, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” which drew on surrealism and intentionally distorted points of view to penetrate the mysteries of the human mind. And the undisturbed enigma of visualized thought in “The Science of Sleep” contains ethereal beauty.
Unfortunately, Gondry needs better creative partners. His first feature in 2001 was the uneven “Human Nature” and his flawed 2008 comedy “Be Kind Rewind” felt a little too self-righteous for its own good. “Eternal Sunshine” had an Oscar-winning screenplay by Charlie Kaufman (a partnership that began with an introduction by Gondry’s fellow music-video auteur, Spike Jonze). Here, Gondry’s film is hampered by writer-producer-star Rogen, who has a half-baked approach to dialogue that’s rife with lazy colloquialisms and a performance that skews toward the crass.
Gondry’s strength remains in his capacity for showing what moving images can do beyond telling a story. He needs stories that are better told.