In The Green Hornet, a long-in-the-works feature-film outing for the venerable radio/film-serial/television/comic-book character, Seth Rogen plays a shiftless playboy who, more or less on a lark, embarks on a career as a crimefighter. He almost immediately recognizes he’s in over his head, then has to fake his way through his new job anyway. It’s easy to imagine the filmmakers feeling much the same way. Rogen and creative partner Evan Goldberg wrote the script; Michel Gondry, at his best a crafter of profound, visually striking whimsy, provided the direction. Nothing in the team’s collective filmography suggested they’d be particularly suited to make a big action movie, and the lumpy results suggest they never grew comfortable in those roles. Like their onscreen hero, they get the job done, but leave a mess in their wake.
Still, better a mess with personality than a paint-by-numbers job, even if the personalities rarely work together. Gondry’s imaginative touches are best felt in a handful of inspired scenes, particularly an early fight sequence, an inventive split-screen interruption, and the handmade quality of the Hornet’s gadgets. Rogen, meanwhile, brings his usual unstable combination of teddy-bear vulnerability and caustic distance. They’re two intriguing tastes that don’t always taste great together, but any clash of sensibilities between director and star still feels less awkward than Rogen’s many scenes with his incarnation of the Green Hornet’s Kato, as played by Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou. Chou has an undeniable screen presence and a painfully shaky grasp of English pronunciation, but he at least gets off better than Cameron Diaz, who’s mostly on hand as an object for Rogen’s leering.
When the film works, it’s fun, but it seldom tops an opening scene in which Christoph Waltz reestablishes his top-dog status by taking on a young challenger (an unbilled James Franco) who critiques the absence of flair in Waltz’s supervillainy. Gondry plays the scene as pure comedy, and it’s the last unconfused moment he manages before plunging into a buddy comedy in which the buddies have no chemistry, and an action film where the best moments feel more thrilling in concept than execution. It’s a strange, shapeless, rarely satisfying, but generally amiable movie in which everyone appears to be faking it as they go along, and almost—almost—getting away with it.