RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 6: JC Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year” (2014)

A Most Violent Year

The Players…

Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola and Albert Brooks.

The Story…

When successful businessman Abel Morales is up against the wall regarding his dwindling fortunes due to extortion, he has to make a tough decision. The law is investigating the legitimacy of his practices. The Teamsters may or may not be strong-arming his drivers and fleet of trucks, hijacking them. He might have been unwittingly connected to Mafia undercurrents. Abel must decide whether to fight back with the law on one side, or a gun on another.

The Rant…

I grew up in a town that was slowly going under.

It was once a proud city, a model of industrial success and opportunity. A destination for urban prosperity as well as a shining example of what hard work, a decent chamber of commerce and a fine education system could accommodate. For the better part of a century, my hometown was textbook USA with all the fineries that went with it.

All that was on its way out when I moved there.

I didn’t know that at the time, but once I entered high school, the corruption flaking off at the corners became evident. Crime rates increased, the roads became veritable sh*tty golf courses of potholes, the cops more interested in busting non-whites for being non-white rather than tackling bigger issues like nascent gang violence and the drug trade. And the local gentry—with their suburban dollars—engaging in that perennial pastime called white flight didn’t help much either.

The town fell asunder. Local pundits—not much removed from the nameless, faceless “they” which was always being accused of causing the rot—threw up their collective hands and resigned themselves to the classic defense of “things ain’t what they used to be.” Then they went back to nursing their beers and openly hating negroes.

I think on some level that this malaise and acquiescence by the townies of dwindling returns planted the seed of my eventual hard-on for sketchy neighborhoods, their potential dangers, and an overall curiosity regarding urban corruption in cities larger than mine. I was a lilywhite, suburban kid, residing in one of the more well-heeled residential neighborhoods on the fringes of the city, far removed from the grime and blight downtown. At that age, center city was terra incognito, no man’s land, not the place for a well mannered me. Hell, back then my world ended about two blocks south of my home, bordered by a very busy street. That was the line of demarcation in my wanderings around my squeaky clean neighborhood.

The whole street thing and admonishments from the who’s who regarding the dark, urban underbelly of our slowly going south town also had an influence on my attraction to seedy sections of a city. On a very low level—basically a gateway—any time at that impressionable age I got to cross that demon street, I felt I was getting away with something. Something bad. I was going where I wasn’t supposed to be. Granted, this was very weak sauce. Across the street was a neighborhood almost exactly like mine. No Hell’s Kitchen there. But as I got older, and eventually earned a driver’s license, I’d find myself following my senses and exploring ever further into the belly of the beast. This didn’t stop within my hometown. Oh, no. Before Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations ever hit the air, your humble movie-basher would one way or another find himself in the seamier sections of New York, Boston, San Francisco and Honolulu even, looking for truth and fun.

You don’t have to be part of some Nat Geo expedition to the Yucatan to discover bizarre wildlife. Sometimes all you have to do is simply go “downtown,” if you have one. One of the many reasons I had for poking my nose into places I had no sane right to be was discovering said wildlife, usually in some back corner of the demimonde. Here’s a story about one such adventure. Perhaps—if you were lucky—you might know what I’m talking about; the surreptitious joys of both “getting away with it” and/or “being where you’re not supposed to be.”

Granted Honolulu is not South Central LA, but in the vein of our urban explorer adventure—and not to implicate myself in past incidents of a dubious nature—let’s just go with it. I figure a tale about scouring the back streets of some tourist town might be easier to digest than, say, avoiding hoodlums while trying to…uh, let’s let that hang in the air. Honolulu is figuratively and literally a sunny place, and we’ll make this late night excursion a positive one.

In some ways, the touristy town is a bit of a slum unto itself. There, most of the side neighborhoods were made not of crumbling, burnt-out buildings but endless, endless, identical hotels, restaurants and gift shops. Sterile. Plain. Somewhat intimidating, all those glaring lights and tall, tall white monuments to disposable dollars. The place eventually felt like the set of cautionary movie Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. On the other side of that same coin think Pete Seeger: “Little boxes, little boxes…”

When I was fortunate enough to visit Hawaii, I was held up in the local Hilton complex. Not hotel. Complex. Tourism is a compartmentalized business. The resort does not want its guests to leave the property, running the risk of them spending dollars at some off-site restaurant or bar. They want to keep the money circulating right there and only there. After all day wandering the grounds, exploring every nook and cranny, I came to that conclusion. The place had restaurants, bars, pools, gyms, even a mall for f*ck’s sake, and all of it under the banner of Hilton. Barring going to the beach, there really was no reason to go explore the town. You had everything there for your touristy dollar delights.

Which was reason enough for me to get the hell out of there for a while.

Later that night your typical Pacific rainstorm began pummeling the town. Drove a lot of the people indoors. Not me. I knew from my urban exploring that when the rain comes down, the rats come out of their holes in the wall. With all its shiny, cleansed, inescapable edifices of combustible dollars everywhere, I knew that Honolulu had to have its local color hidden away somewhere. So in the rain, my backpack filled with comics, pens and my notepad, I left the Hilton and wandered over to a small, independent bookshop across the street. I asked the guy at the counter where a haole like me could find some local action. He kind of smirked and directed me to a bar down the road. I thanked him and bounded back into the storm again, rain pissing down and me dodging cabs.

The further I got down the street, getting ever soggier, I saw that the hotels began to thin out giving way to smaller shops and parking lots. The lights of the hotels still shone brightly, but the shadows got progressively longer, blurring into the puddles. Par my tour guides directions, I took a left at a light and stumbled down the side road towards my destination. What I found looked very out of place wedged between two other monolithic but less luxurious hotels. I mean very out of place. I think the bar was located under a parking deck. There was nothing more to give a passerby an indication that it was a legit watering hole save the lone window with a neon Corona sign lit up and an open door permitting weary music droning from within. I had found my quarry. I was a shade disappointed at first. If this is what the downtrodden neighborhood of Honolulu was, it was no more skuzzy than my bar back East.

Inside, the place was low slung. The ceiling was only about a foot higher than I was. Corny trinkets of Hawaiian kitsch littered the walls. Peeling linoleum floor. A fogbank of blue haze from endless cigarettes. Rickety wooden stools circling the bar that had seen better days, their foam seats spilling out from tears in the vinyl. I liked the place immediately. Looking around, the bar crowd didn’t seem like a touristy bunch. I distinctly remember seeing a few cooks and valets, still in uniform, drinking beer, playing pool and just shooting the sh*t. This must’ve been where the working class—the underside—of Honolulu tourism went to get away from it all. I grabbed the first stool I saw, ordered a beer (they surprisingly had the local brand I enjoyed back in PA) and got out a few comics to pass the time.

Sitting there, I couldn’t help but get a feeling of déjà vu. This was my first time to the Aloha State, so I knew it was impossible for me to have ever visited this bar before. However, looking around, the joint looked vaguely familiar. I scanned the place for clues. Couldn’t put my finger on it, but…

My investigation and comic book reading was loudly interrupted by a commotion at my back, right where the door was. I turned, as well as most of the locals, to see what was up. These two dudes, dressed head-to-toe in San Francisco 49’ers gear, were whooping it up. The had a wagon in tow—a red Radio Flyer, no lie—with a large, cartoonish, Grandmaster Flash boombox inside. It was playing Billy Joel at 11. These two guys cranked up the volume further, started doing this insane dance and began to karaoke over Billy, hollering improvised lyrics over “We Didn’t Start the Fire” praising the 49er’s. The crowd loved it. They clapped and cheered. Between songs, Frick and Frack did a pseudo Abbott and Costello routine, cracking jokes about (you guessed it) the 49er’s. Folks bought them beers, they danced around appreciatively, and after 15 minutes out the door they went, boombox still blaring.

The bartender told me that those guys were regulars. They hailed, naturally, from San Fran, but always took a monthly vacation to Honolulu, espousing the wonders of the 49er’s wherever they went. I thought that was hilarious and the barkeep agreed. He was a nice guy, laid-back, and was honestly curious about my comics and what I was writing in my notebook. I asked him about the local scene in town and he gestured around his bar and said that this was pretty much it. Most tourists didn’t come to his place, rather mostly hotel employees and a few other locals. I mentioned that this was my first time in Hawaii, but I could swore that his place was familiar.

The guy smiled and pointed to the wall over the pool table. There were a series of framed photos hanging up. I squinted to make them out through the clouds of smoke. A few of them were headshots, all signed. Tom Selleck. Jon Hillerman. Orson Welles (Orson Welles?). A shot of a red Ferrari speeding down a road. It slowly dawned on me.

I turned back to the bartender, pointing over my shoulder at the pictures.

“Are you saying…?” I pointed to the floor. “This is the place?”

The guy smiled proudly and nodded his head. “Aloha, buddy. Welcome to Hawaii.”

I was in the bar that was used in the TV show Magnum PI. I saw that show as a kid. It was pretty cool. For those who want to know, Magnum was this action/comedy show about the escapades of a posh private investigator played by Tom Selleck. His character was a combination of James Bond coolness, Indiana Jones scruffiness and just enough humor to make him a relatable Joe. Beyond that, it was all fast cars, luxurious Hawaiian manses, pretty girls and foiling the exploits of drug runners and murderers. Magnum had a buddy who ran a bar in town, and it was there our hero visited to kick back and have a few, as well as gather scuttlebutt on the local criminal element. Some of the scenes were shot on location in the very bar I was slowly getting tight at.

I returned there the next few nights to hang with the townies, shoot pool, wax philosophical and occasionally discuss the merits of one Magnum episode compared to another with the barkeep. It was nice that the second night I came by—that night’s weather was classic early spring Hawaii: breezy and in the 70s—the bartender recognized me immediately and plunked my beer of choice right in the spot I was sitting in the night before. I kinda doubt I would’ve gotten that kind of royal treatment at one of the Hilton’s sponsored bars.

That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about when I mean sketchy neighborhoods. Granted, that little piece of the city was far from bullet-ridden. But it was a low level thrill to get out of that cushy cloister and sought out what the locals did, whatever it was they sought, happening in a dive bar once featured on a mid-80’s glam cop show. It was a more lighthearted affair then being in “the bad part of town” at night.

Trust me: been there, done that.

Now it wasn’t as if I was trying to score dope or solicit a hooker when the shadows grew longer and then went away. I was usually the wheelman for such adventures. My then loser friends were junkies and pill-poppers; I stuck to the legal drugs. My willingness to drive into the center of night, either hanging out at bars, clubs and all-night diners afterwards, was just the logical—if not socially unhealthy—extension of me “crossing the street” from my college days well into my 20s.

Now listen, I’m not trying to romanticize urban degradation and alienation. Well, maybe a little. Dive bars, empty bus stations, the subway, all these places at night held a sort of magic for me. I created a fantasy world of urban decay in my fevered, Hubert Selby, Jr imagination. This was especially solidified in my years at college, when I was exploring the punk rock scene in NYC at the tail-end of the 70’s, spilling over into the early 80’s. Not the scene per se, but first the bands. The Ramones, Talking Heads, Television, Richard Hell, Dead Boys, early Lou Reed, those guys were my soundtrack. The sordid adventures at CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City where these bands cut their teeth. Jim Carroll living at the movies. I actually did a pair of papers on the social climate of the City for my classes. Needless to say, my research became an enthusiasm. When I get into something it fast becomes a fetish. I scooped up literature on the scene and culture about back in those dying days of disco, delved into it. The stories in Legs McNeill and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me became like gospel, ever fueling my skewed romantic fantasy of the Lower East Side becoming not unlike an asphalt Eden for rogues like me (or thought they were). A good example of at what level my Darwinian mind was working, check out Jim Jarmusch’s debut film Permanent Vacation. Says it all there.

So this week, driven by my still present but usually checked keenness for a crumbling New York between 1976 and 1982, we’re going back in time. Back to a place I’d like to think I visited, explored across the street, when the City was not as “nice” as it is today. Where Travis Bickle still drives a cab and shoots pimps, where Times Square could only be described as “sticky,” where the Ramones wanna take us to Rockaway Beach and where the Statue of Liberty’s torch was unlit.

All that kind of paints a warm, homey picture. Doesn’t it?…

New York, 1981. Winter. The year has gone on record as the peak of a crime wave that enveloped the city for the better part of a decade, and businessman Abel Morales (Isaac) is feeling the pinch. Abel may be the last just man in Sodom. He’s the owner of Standard Oil, a heating fuel company servicing the five boroughs, and has been quite successful for the past 15 years of operation. His is the typical American success story; immigrant does good, becomes a lucrative businessman, gives back to the community, takes care of his employees and has never forgotten where he came from.

Despite this dignified reputation, Abel and Standard Oil are falling victim to said criminal undercurrents plaguing his industry. Or rather, the drivers of his fleet of trucks. There are reports in the shipping business that the Teamsters are engaging in “questionable” business practices. Abel’s oil trucks are getting hijacked and robbed of their contents. Drivers being assaulted and sent to the hospital. What’s more is that Abel’s bank account is taking the hit from two angles. One, the theft of his product, and; two, the city’s legal system running more or less a dragnet through businesses like Abel’s to look for any signs of price gouging, embezzlement, tax evasion and/or extortion. All of this after Abel has just secured the rights to a new property to accommodate his expanding empire.

Abel is made to feel guilty by association. His books are clean, as well as his standing in the business community, and makes no bones about having himself or Standard Oil anything to hide. But the trucks keep getting jacked, and the fuel goes missing. This invites the big questions—the gorilla and elephant f*cking on the edge of Abel’s desk—like who’s commandeering the trucks and where is the oil going?

Anna (Chastain), Abel’s well meaning but hardnosed wife, isn’t helping the circumstance any. She’s Abel’s secretary, who’s all too willing to remind him of Standard’s predicament, as well as their dwindling profits and insurance losses, and the payment on new home they bought in the suburbs, and the needs and safety of their kids, AND the intruder that was sent in the night to “send a message” to Abel and his family.

That violation is the final straw. Abel can’t protect his drivers, can’t protect his investments, can’t even protect his family. His once sterling reputation is fast going down the tubes, hot on the heels of his profits. There’s foul play afoot, but the law is more concerned if Abel is cooking the books rather than concerned with dozens of injured drivers. This can’t keep happening. Abel’s fortunes, his home, his investments are evaporating, and the County of New York wants more. The trucks have to roll. It’s winter, and customers need Abel’s fuel to keep warm. He can’t afford protection for his workers.

1981 was one of the worst years for violent crime in the City. Since the cops are doing next to nothing to protect Abel’s interests, he decides to take the law into his own hands. Fight fire with fire, and arm his drivers with guns…

Not that long ago, I was pining for a hopefully good movie to scan here at RIORI within a seemingly endless mire of slop. It was during a dry spell, like when the new releases arrive in March. I’m not entirely certain of when, but I recall at least three, maybe four films I saw in a row that really taxed my usual good humor. Then came a buoy in this sea of mediocrity. It came in the form of JC Chandor’s All Is Lost (Vol. 2, Installment 18…the first entry I got some actual feedback).

Let me tell you: voluntarily doing this gig can take a lot out of you. It’s not unlike you’ve driven on a very straight, always predicable stretch of highway. You know where the tight curves are, where the cops have their speed traps and where the best place on the road to score some cheap soft serve for the kids. Then there are the potholes, the construction crews, the traffic and the inexplicable gridlock on the eastbound lane when an accident occurs on the westbound lane. The highway’s the same, and you know it well when you’re travelling at a rapid clip. It’s the above glitches that can really take the wind out of your sails. Or gas from you tank, or whatever.

All Is Lost was a fine, solid film. In this day and age, that says a lot. Mostly today’s directors are tossed laurels and in the short line for Oscar nods when their work becomes noteworthy. The promise of an Oscar, a Golden Globe, even a People’s Choice Award seems to become the end all and be all regarding recognition to a director, justifying his or her work. I don’t think that’s the case with Chandor.

The Standard dictates lame box office draw and/or critical response to make the movie hit the list. All Is Lost was a great movie, the critics lauded it, and old smoothie Robert Redford got to shine. But it didn’t do well at the theatres, not in a profitable way. Neither did A Most Violent Year. Again we had critical praise and a engaging story, but no popular audience to rally around it. What’s going on here? Poor marketing?

Maybe. More like, sort of.

Seems to me that Chandor’s films only get limited releases in major cities. Places like LA, Chicago and of course NYC. It’s kind of hard to gain exposure, as well as recouping your losses, when your movie only plays in ten US cities for maybe two months. I remember here in my neck of the woods, All Is Lost only played at the local art house cinema, and for only one week. Recalling earlier about the cultural mindset of my town, the fact there’s even an art house cinema around is remarkable. What’s more is that a few of the locals even caught All Is Lost is nothing short of miraculous.

So I don’t think Chandor is in the biz to earn a lot of awards and make boatloads of cash. A Most Violent Year barely made a dent in the Hollywood marketplace, and that’s pushing it. Its budget was $20 million. Its gross was $5,700,000. Worldwide. Ouch. I think, for circumstances surrounding films like A Most Violent Year, The Standard may have to be tweaked. I mean, you really can’t fault a film’s lousy box office performance if said film only got shown on a dozen screens in, well, art house cinemas. Fault for poor marketing maybe, but not for the film’s quality.

And Year is definitely a quality film. It’s not a good as All Is Lost, but Year is a totally different animal, even though there are similar themes.

Like survival. Abel’s story isn’t life-and-limb like Redford’s plight, but he is struggling to keep his business alive—his livelihood—against odds he has no control against despite his best actions and intentions. In a certain light, trying to make it against the backdrop of grimy NYC can be just as harrowing. Instead of being lost at sea, life in the City keeps safety and sanity at an arm’s length. In Year, it’s New York vs. Abel.

The City in winter 1981 mirrors my fascination with urban decay quite keenly. I don’t know whom the people responsible for location settings were, but they deserve a medal. The climate adds dinginess to all the scenes. Grey ice and clouds permeate almost every shot. You get a real taste for this in the opening montage. We have Abel doing his morning jogging routine. He runs along the streets; first in his affluent, suburban neighborhood (it looks like Staten Island), then later a residential neighborhood, then the main drag—it being bookended by grim-looking, possibly vacant brick buildings—until his jog ends in a very crappy neighborhood, the aforementioned buildings looking like they’ve been made out of graffiti. He then turns around and heads back along the same route. And all this time, there’s the snow, first white and fluffy and terminating in dirty puddles under steel grey skies and coppery sunlight. It looks so cold—weather and social climate alike—that you can practically see your own breath.

In the vein of setting the scene, Year’s editing is simply amazing. There’s this constant, constant pendulum swing between scenes (with some very cool cuts; juxtaposing Abel’s arrival in his Cadillac against his trucks pulling out really grabs your attention). It’s throughout the film. We have the suburban homes; we have the blighted, abandoned buildings. We have quiet winding streets in the nice part of town; we have the smoggy, congested traffic on the highway. We have warm, comfy offices indoors and cold industrial warehouses outside. This back and forth motion might sound disorienting, or at worst some cloying director’s trick to send a little too obvious a message, but it never comes across that way. Obvious allusions or no, it’s never intrusive or distracting. It’s sets a rhythm, one inviting the audience to determine the inner dynamics of the plot.

Isaac’s performance is a rare treat. Here’s a character that comes across as everyman, especially with his compassion and sincerity but simmering with tension. Abel comes across having a very difficult time coming to grips with his problems, but must at all times maintain his composure. Sure, he conducts himself and his business with this brave face and the weight of Standard’s reputation—it’s winter, and these hijackings are not going to result in his customers freezing to death. But then there’s the back alley dealings; off-the-record conversations with his workers and competitors (later culminating with the dire need for Abel to arm his drivers). Isaac presents his whole image with a controlled rage, just winking at us below the surface. The angst he must have reflects the climate of the City as it was then. So Abel may be an openly sincere urban oil magnate, but there’s this lingering…something.

This unrelenting dark tension underpins the film. I’m not talking about the tautness by scenes of legal finagling, hijacking and home invasions. It’s this inescapable, grim feeling that not all as it seems. It’s uncomfortable, to say the least. What we see with our cast are people up against a wall, indifferent social institutions and rampant crime chewing away at their stability and security. But is that what we’re really seeing?

A seed is planted early. A scene when Abel comes before the local legal representative, the lawyer lays claim that Standard Oil’s business practices may or may not be legal. But what’s the law being bent, and what’s the motive? Abel appears confident in himself being a legitimate businessman, but there’s something else there underlying his assurance. Isaac’s delivery is ever so slightly quavering, there and gone. Doubt is raised. Doubt to Abel’s operations, the lawyer’s intentions, Abel’s recent and possible future investments. Things start coming into question. Something is, to put it plainly, not right. But it’s impossible to determine what, even over the duration of the film. Even when the story is “resolved” questions remain. Year is unsatisfying, but not in a bad way. More like a pleading way.

Another similarity with All Is Lost is the “man alone” conflict. No matter what Abel does to counteract all the tensions that bear down on his life—which cause it to gradually unravel—he gets no quarter. There are precious few scenes of outright violence in Year, ironically enough, but it always seems to be lurking around the corner. The possibility of danger bursting forth is always there, but seldom actually breaks the surface. Most of the time it’s Abel trying to hold it together, get a grip, try to find a way out. Hold his own, especially when the law starts leaning into him and making unscheduled visits to his home. No one seems to be on his side, save his vampy wife Anna.

Now Chastain’s character is an interesting mix of uncertainty and pragmatism. If Abel is the humanist, relying on himself putting his best foot/face forward, then Anna is the realist. She knows all about shifty lawyers and business’ being strong-armed. Anna’s the daughter of a mobster, and that tidbit’s not really brought to the forefront of the action, but like Abel’s tight visage, Anna tries to maintain a front of dedicated wife, mother and a model of quaint domesticity (albeit being luxurious). At first glance, Anna looks like she’s turned her back on her Mafia ties, but how she “advises” Abel’s conduct—business and otherwise—suggests an agendum. Like with Abel’s brave face, Anna’s gentle pressing implies something below the surface. Nothing concrete, mind you, however there is a scene when the law comes to the Morales’ home unannounced and two things occur (SPOILER ALERT):

First, Abel and Anna quickly stash the records of Standard Oil’s accounts under the deck, afraid what the lawyers/cops might find. Why? Nothing solid’s been stated about possible criminal acts, so what do the Morales’ have to hide?

Second, Anna gives a kiss off to the lawyer that’s conducting the investigation. First admonishing him and his flunkies for scaring her kids, and second—more sinisterly—reminds him of where she came from/who she knows. If she openly disinherited herself, and makes no bones about it, then why “pull rank?” Also, as an extension, how come she seems to know more about the kind of criminal dynamic Standard Oil has been besieged with if she’s never tried to affiliate herself with the Family? All these implications generates succulent tension, questioning the truth of the matter and being left with a feeling of dread that picks at your brain for days.

Year was a contemplative flick, all right. It made you think as well as question the nature of Abel and Anna’s surroundings, and what their true motives are. I mean, I’m writing this installment about a week after seeing the movie, and the flick’s still picking. That’s a sure sign of a good movie; that it leaves you with something wanting, but not lacking.

A while back I said RIORI was swearing off indie movies. With their limited releases circuiting small theatres, the results of small returns and quirky reviews almost guarantee Standard material. Year wasn’t an indie film. It did have a limited release, yes, but I’m not certain that that would’ve had a significant impact on the movie’s performance overall. The film did have difficult subject matter, with the grim and deceptive plot doing the average moviegoer no favors. But still, when you drop $20,000,000 on your film, and it only recoups a quarter of its budget, it’s glaring. Except it was a good movie. Challenging, yes, and relentlessly grim at times, but not so inaccessible to drive away the laymen.

Hm. I could say that there’s no accounting for taste, especially these days. Then again, I’m not so certain that folks would get a charge out of exploring the sticky underbelly of urban society with its crack pipes, angry whores, crooked cops and the last good deal gone down. Besides, NYC in Year was light years away from a darkened corner of Honolulu (or a good chunk of New York of today, for that matter), inviting wreck and ruin to a fool like me.

In reflection, my whole obsession with some William S Burroughs romance of skuzz in the big city was pretty juvie. My hometown was going down a slippery slope when I was a kid, and is still ever hurtling towards the Seventh Level. That’s just depressing when you think about it, and my old stomping grounds are not unique in their squalor. Right now, there are more sketchy neighborhoods than fully drawn ones back home looking more and more like winter NYC 1981 every year, even if it’s summertime.

After watching this cinematic exercise in extreme street-crossing, I came to a simple conclusion: Hawaii is a sunny place, filled with happy people, cool dive bars, occasionally Tom Selleck and nary a pile of dirty, gravel-ridden, week old snow to be found.

I’m never going back there again.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s a downer of a movie to be sure, but still engaging. It leaves you with more questions than answers, and you’ll probably want it that way. Sorry for being so straight this time out; the film demanded some somber reflection. Next time it’ll be all fart jokes and malice. You have my word. 🙂

Stray Observations…

  • Brooks is barely recognizable here, save his down in the dumps demeanor. And is that his real hair?
  • “Stare longer than you should.”
  • I love that coat Abel’s wearing, like, for 90% of the film. It’s like his shield, and he seldom takes it off in front of some guy with clout. Your move, punk.
  • “It’s not like when we was driving.”
  • It’s all soft conversations here. No one really ever raises their voice in anger. Sure, there’s sniping, but never screaming. Until there is.
  • “F*ck you!” “You’re welcome!”

Next Installment…

Tobey Maguire dons the tights for the last time in the infamous Spider-Man 3.

RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 5: Michel Gondry’s “The Green Hornet” (2011)


The Players…

Seth Rogen, Jay Chou, Christoph Waltz and Cameron Diaz, with Edward James Olmos, David Harbour, Tom Wilkinson and a very funny cameo from James Franco.

The Story…

When careless Britt Reid’s newspaper mogul father dies accidentally, he has to man up and take over his old man’s media empire. Britt? He’s a slovenly, self-entitled trust-fund bastard. All he needs is himself, partying, girls, that’s all and forget the family business. But after one night when a prank goes wrong, and he’s inadvertently falls into the belly of LA’s crime beast, he has an epiphany. All these low-lives are running the city—the city Dad always wrote about and exposed its dark side—and almost nearly ruined Britt. Nothing like your balloon being popped to wake you up. So he and his buddy Kato do the only rational thing in response: become superheroes…with a really bitchin’ ride.

The Rant…

Sex sells, as the popular axiom goes. You know what comes in second? Nostalgia.

If you were there, you might remember back in the 90’s when all those movies based on TV shows and radio serials came out. If you weren’t, here you go: Some Hollywood exec got a wild hair up his ass one day and figured, “Hey, nostalgia’s always a big draw for audiences. Look at The Big Chill, or Diner, or even Back to the Future? And what’s a better source of nostalgia that being reminded of the slapdash fun of the old television and radio shows that built freakin’ pop culture? They need the big treatment!”

Um. Well. Not sure why those type of shows were elected as cinema fodder. I’ve always assumed the 50-year-old-plus demographic was more or less non-existent. My guess is that in a rare show of cynicism on Hollywood’s part, no one from the crucial 16-24 age demo would’ve ever even heard of the likes of any radio serials from yesteryear. Let alone know what a f*cking radio serial is. So a play on viewer ignorance was gambled. More often than not, Hollywood came up trumps.

Now I wasn’t party to the executive meeting, so I’m just basing that scenario on my very lopsided, maligned view of the Hollywood movie machine. It might have more truth than we’d like to admit. Most of these adaptations had middling results at best or just plain fell short. There were the good ones (The Fugitive, Dick Tracy), the not so good (Lost in Space, The Shadow) and the goddam terrible (The Beverly Hillbillies, The Phantom. Curse you, Billy Zane).

Right. So in the last decade of the 20th Century, Hollywood got its sniffer going on the very old nostalgia train and began rooting through the vaults of classic TV and radio to find material for movie updates. Easy money, that; securing the rights to half-forgotten stories must’ve been hella cheap. Low price tag notwithstanding, most of the end results sucked miles of c*ck. Don’t quote me on this, but I think this might’ve been the start of the “reboot trend” that’s omnipresent in movie making today, by which I mean use an established format that proved successful (read: profitable), lather, rinse repeat and watch the cash come oozing in. With the TV-as-movie thing, it worked for a while. When McHale’s Navy finally got the silver screen treatment, there was the tipping point and America threw up it hands. Okay, that’s when I threw up my hands. Maybe I just threw up rather.

In hindsight, I really can’t figure out the big-screen TV/radio model. Other than the novelty of “big stars” and bigger budgets to ensure the movie adaptation will be…well, big, why bother seeing it rather than the already successful TV shows they were based? I mean, not all small successes demand a new wheel. Did The Flintstones need to be upgraded? Why am I even asking?

Still, it can’t be said that the TV/radio cum movie trend was a total waste. There were a few bright spots. I mentioned The Fugitive (which got an Oscar nod for Best Pic, believe it or not). There also was the Mission: Impossible franchise, the very tongue-in-cheek Maverick, and what Monty Python got to do with a bigger budget was nothing short of hysterical. And if you wanna get technical, there was another legacy show that got the royal treatment.

Don’t worry. I am going somewhere with this. Sit down and shut up.

Let’s set the way-back machine to the mid-60s. There was this big hit TV series showcasing screwy, heroic adventures, was chockfull of dastardly villains, byzantine plots, silly costumes, a little social commentary, and also a very chic place to make a cameo. And no, we’re not talking the original Star Trek here. Good guess though, especially with the whole “guest-starring” bit.

We’re talking the original Batman, starring Adam West as the Caped Crusader and Burt Ward as the (man) boy-wonder Robin. Yeah! The corny, campy duo that sets right what their rogues’ gallery sets to undo week after week ensuring Gotham is a safe place to ransack again next week. It was corn-tastic, rife with Jarlsberg dialogue, stupid plots (most of it not a little too removed from the source material) and with enough of a pop cultural cachet to even have Bobby Kennedy request a cameo (for real!). If Tim Burton’s Batman wasn’t an obvious vehicle to tap onto the Hollywood nostalgia TV wagon here, the timing sure was. The Baby Boomers as kids caught Batman on TV and later took their kids to Batman on the big screen. I think some were half-expecting goofiness, since director Burton’s previous effort was 1988’s Beetlejuice. Who knows?

Batman, like a lot of TV shows back then, were upgrades from radio shows. It was the march of time in the media world; Superman, the Lone Ranger, Dick Tracy, all those guys got started on the AM band. Making them into television shows was the next logical step. And like the movie/TV craze a quarter-century ago, there were plenty of wells to plumb to morph once-profitable radio shows into TV series to wedge between ads. At any rate, Batman the TV show became the quintessential iteration of this move. The TV series beget Batman the movie (and its increasingly embarrassing sequels) 20 years later. Doubtless all this exchanging of funds from radio to TV to movie has something to do with that. Not to mention cashing in on the nostalgia ticket. Remember The Wonder Years? Shameless pandering to the Boomers, believe you me. 1989’s Batman was not all that different.

Burton’s Batman, despite its massive budget, top tier stars and its dark and brooding Gotham, still had a lot of winks and nods to the old TV show. Besides Jack Nicholson’s overreaching portrayal of the Joker, there were bits and pieces of camp and comedy spattered throughout the film. Again, little doubt throwing a bone to the older generation. Burton shrewdly knew that he had to straddle the fence between attracting and not alienating the old school fan base while at the same time enticing younger audiences—with their flammable dollars—to come see the show.

What presaged Batman making his big budget splash was this: syndication of the old TV show. I remember as a kid, West and Ward’s Dynamic Duo reruns got heavy rotation on local affiliates. In hindsight this might have been the soft sell to get folks to see the eventual movie proper. Worked for me.

I found the show funny, dumb, corny and poorly choreographed (Bam! Splat!), yet oddly watchable. There was a factor in play that wasn’t even inhaled by the Boomers then and would barely send a whiff to the Millennials: THIS SH*T WAS MEANINGLESS, STUPID FUN. For real. I mean, hey, I watched the crap relentlessly as a kid. It might’ve been because it was summertime and there were only stupid reruns on all the time. But I doubt that the Boomers found Batman pithy, regardless of its social commentary, but rather action of the highest regard. I mean, check out that jet-powered Batmobile! With a siren on top! The jet thing was even carried over to the movie’s Batmobile.

Today’s generation would find the old program nothing more than sad and laughable—a fair assessment all things considered—and would only tune in out of being all ironic. Kids, there was a time where irony was not just buying the tee-shirt. Trust me. Gen X perfected cynicism and irony. By the way, you’re welcome for the Internet being scrubbed as best it can be.

*squeegees bile off screen*

But back in the 60s, the Batman TV series was huge. It became a cultural phenomenon. It had like over 100 episodes in three years. Baloney-fed Adam West was a sex symbol, before God. It was so popular, as I mentioned, that celebrity guest-stars and cameos abounded. Actors of the day would line up in droves to be a guest star on the show. Vincent Price, Burgess Merideth, Julie Newmar, Eli Wallach, Joan Collins and even “Mr. Television” Milton Berle all made recurring appearances on the show. This is not to mention the “wall-crawling” gimmick employed in the show where the aforementioned cameos popped out a window to chat up Batman and Robin. Folks like Sammy Davis, Jr., Dick Clark, Jerry Lewis, Edward G Robinson, the Green Hornet and Kato—

Wait. What? (Told ya I was going somewhere.)

Not unlike an infamous episode of the original Star Trek series (it was called “Assignment: Earth” BTW, and it failed as a gateway to Roddenberry’s next sci-fi show, as well as being one of the worst eps of Star Trek ever) the network used the popularity of Batman to serve as a launch pad for their next superhero show, The Green Hornet. Like the TV/movies of the 90s, Hornet was originally a radio serial. The guys behind Batman wanted to capitalize on their show’s popularity by introducing the next superhero team that would surely eat up the airwaves.

Well—surprise, surprise—it didn’t. The show played straight to the goofiness of its parent show, and I guess at the time audiences weren’t in the mood for “serious superheroes.” Hell, even TV’s Superman George Reeves was a humorous, light-hearted and gentle guy, not the conflicted Kryptonian we know and love today. The Green Hornet as TV wasn’t a total loss though. It did manage to survive one full season, and got some respectable reviews. More importantly, the show introduced a grateful world to Bruce Lee, who played Van Williams’ valet and kung fu sidekick Kato. What was the neat sticking point of the short-lived series, which was pleasantly not campy like Batman was (the producers must’ve heard the air going out of Batman’s whoopee cushion and tried an about face towards better ratings elsewhere). It was also probably the first interracial team-up in prime time TV. Yeah, yeah, there was Jay “Tonto” Silverheels on The Lone Ranger, but he was played more like a subordinate. On The Green Hornet, however, despite Kato being the Hornet’s aide-de-camp, Lee’s character wasn’t a stereotype and more or less an equal—as far as characterization was concerned. Lee’s Kato was sharp, tough, funny and also did a lot of winks-and-nods to the audience about who was the “real brains” of the Hornet’s operation. Though the show was short-lived, Hornet had it’s moment in the sun thanks to Lee, who we all know went on to bigger, better, more ass-kicking things.

I guess based on that small cachet alone, The Green Hornet earned the latest—quite possibly last—radio/TV-to-movie adaptation treatment. However, the fact it dropped in 2011 is kind of puzzling; raping and pillaging the video vaults for celluloid destruction is so last century. Especially if it’s ravening for delights a big budget allows, with their name stars and a director who’s been known to make good on colorful movie promises.

Hang on. More on that later. The answers will come. Have faith…

The curious thing about print media—magazines, tabloids and above all established newspapers—in the 21st Century is that, despite all the competition from the Internet and social media, established, well-written newspapers can still be bastions of not only delivering the news, but also an inexpensive gateway into world we live in, at home or abroad. The most successful papers can defy the law of diminishing returns by wit, grit, great writing and integrity. It’s how most media empires started a century ago. Ask Hearst.

James Reid (Wilkinson) established said media empire with The Daily Sentinel, LA’s last independent newspaper. With only his hard-nosed approach to the telling the truth about the ugly aspects of the City of Angels, he stands tall above the other easily bought-and-sold journalists that plagued the city. He’s had his pulse on the finger of LA, and has reported all the glam, glitz, shams and sh*ts that the city represents, his integrity never wavering.

Then there’s his son, Britt (Rogen).

To call wastrel Britt a party animal is akin to calling a junkie a “heroin fancier.” He’s been living off The Sentinel’s—and his dad’s—millions for over, like, two decades. And what does Britt have to show for it? Damage fees for reckless parties, endless hangovers and babes laid waste in his bed whom he can’t even remember their names (okay, so it ain’t all bad).

James demands of Britt time and again as to how could he take over the family business when he’s endlessly recovering from one night of debauchery onto the next morning of debauchery? Britt assures his father that he has plans, or rather really good excuses.

But when James dies unexpectedly, it falls to Britt to head up The Sentinel in his father’s stead. Britt always knew his dad was a scion—albeit dickish—of hard-nosed truth. What’s Britt? A walking bar tab. There’s no bloody way he could ever run a first rate newspaper, especially since daddy held the reigns for so long. Britt soon realizes, away from the Jacuzzi and the endless open bars, not only that he’s wholly incapable of filling dad’s shoes, he can barely fill his own.

It takes a lousy cup of coffee one day—a threat to his hallmark of self-entitlement—to get Britt’s dander up. Who’s responsible for this swill? It wasn’t James Reid’s mechanic Kato (Chou), who has a gift regarding not only coffee, but also custom-made tech in general. Turns out that Kato became James’ valet, but wasn’t too keen on it. He would’ve bailed years ago, but the opportunity to work on James’ collection of classic cars proved to be too much of a temptation. Kato was such a good little elf, James gave him free reign of his garage to indulge in all of his tech ideas, some of which James actually green-lit.

Dad never green-lit anything to Britt, not even respect.

Anyway, Kato earned the respect Britt never had. Such a drag. But after a long day of espresso, beer and the sense of self-righteousness they bring—also the pair having no love lost for their late benefactor—Britt and Kato decide to defile the late James’ headstone as a drunken lark. In Kato’s souped-up ride, it’s off to the cemetery.

But things go all tits-up, as they often do.

Before Britt could hiccup, a crew of toughs assault a young couple—a simple, easily ignored story that James Reid would’ve reported. With only the zeal drunken panic can bring, Britt lays a haymaker to a thug and Kato kung-fus his way through the rest. Both bail and thank their lucky asses that no innocents got hurt. But this altercation—aeons away from Britt’s cushy bed—plants a seed. This was a random act of violence in the City, but it happens everyday. Not to Britt, or even Kato. But to see it, hell get involved in it? Britt and Kato aren’t cops. The police have bigger fish to fry.

But this sh*t happens all the time. And a lot of criminal bigwigs—the kind of d*ckheads Britt’s dad would fearlessly expose—profit off of these muggings. The scales fall from Britt’s eyes, assisted by too much adrenaline. It felt good to save some people, someone other than himself. First time for everything.

After all the ballyhoo, Britt shares many more beers with Kato, and both get all amped when the local TV news captures their exploits.

“We’re heroes!” Britt screams. And that’s when it really hits him. The words planted by his late dad coming out of his mouth.

Britt figures that the best way to thwart the organized crime gangs’ activities is to create a target; a united front, if you will, against an uber-criminal. Put the whole “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” axiom to the test. When all the thugs are after the guy whose been scotching all their delicate affairs of drug-dealing, extortion and creating general mayhem, they’ll get all reckless in pursuit and the cops’ll have easy leads to follow.

Britt and Kato—with his gift for tech—will become superheroes! No! Anti-heroes!

Only old school crime boss Chudnofsky (Waltz) ain’t buying this latest scam in a lifetime of scams.

Chudnofsky has been around. He’s been a serpent slinking the gutters of LA long before Britt and Kato’s antics were barely a fart in the wind. Whoever the calling card belongs to, Chudnofsky has no pretense—or fear—of any marginally successful upstart that might potentially upset his delicate balance of crime and profit. Who gives a sh*t how cool his ride is, or his getup? Or his kung fu sidekick? And what real criminal leaves actual calling cards at the scenes of their crimes? Idiots. There’s a lot to be said for being quiet, methodical and carrying a double-barreled pistol.

That’s the trouble with interlopers confusing themselves as would-be crime fighters: it’s always spectacle over substance.

Not unlike the headlines on The Daily Sentinel, now run under the auspices of a lushy, spoiled, ne’er-do-well with a green mask, a boss ride and a kung fu/tech master wingman who patiently waits for his time in the sun, Britt’s alter-ego The Green Hornet exposes crime in a more in-your-face way than the paper ever could.

Now if only Britt could keep off of the f*cking chaise lounge, pool-side…

How Hornet plays out ties in directly with it’s troubled birth. When I asked earlier as to why this kind of film adaptation—after its brethren died a cold death at the turn of the century—was made in 2011 when the practice is so outré, the truth is odd. Well, not really considering how Hollywood works (which I’m still trying to figure out, and may never do). Anyway, I don’t think the nostalgia tag alone was reason enough why Hornet had to become reality. I think it was partly out of frustration.

Y’ever hear of “Production Hell?”

For those who haven’t, here you go (for those who have, feel free to skip ahead, you lazy sods): sometimes a movie project fails to get off the ground, despite all the hype and/or goodwill Hollywood dumps into its development. But no matter how much press and promise the execs deliver, sometimes movie projects just can’t gain traction. Be it budgetary concerns, securing a good script and/or writer, casting disputes or just a lot of hurry up and wait, some movies just languish as concepts rather than actual productions. Said concepts linger in the Hollywood backwaters—endlessly on hiatus—in what is know as “production hell.” A good example of this is another movie covered here at RIORI: the eventual execution of Watchmen by Barnum-like director Zack Snyder. That film fell under the guidelines of The Standard in every which way, but not might have if the film hadn’t decayed in production hell for 20 years since its initial proposal.

Hornet is another casualty of production hell. To answer the question of why make a movie based on a radio show well into the 21st Century? How that creatively bankrupt ship sailed lies within the kooky machinations of production hell. Hornet was originally slated for release in 1997. Nineteen. Ninety. Seven. That’s almost fifteen years prior to the film’s eventual release. It was also back then that the TV/radio show-as-movie trend was in full swing. The only reason I can divine as to why Hornet finally saw the light of day was to cash in on this century’s current version of movies lifted from Michael Crichton novels: the superhero gimmick.

Right. I mentioned that Hornet as a visual entertainment spawned from the Batman series. Technically the Green Hornet wasn’t a comic book superhero, but sort of sided that way thanks to Bats. Then again, I often shamefully point the finger at Hollywood for trying to make a buck based on audience’s ignorance, which they often succeed. These kids don’t know nuffin about no Batman teevee show, let alone some offshoot with a dead martial arts legend as actor! Crank it out! Let’s see if she sails!

Cynical you say? Damn skippy. You know how marketing works: if it makes money, ram it into the ground. Keep it going as fast as f*ck as possible before the bubble eventually pops. Besides, folks these days have attention spans like gnats on Red Bull. Entertain the brutes! It’s akin to the old Doritios slogan: crunch all you want, we’ll make more.

Hmm. Well, perhaps Hornet was better off in production hell. Hollywood sure didn’t profit much from its eventual birth. As an example to how a film gets mired down in production hell, Hornet suffered from the trifecta of roadblocks that keep a movie’s production down in the trenches.

First, a suitable director couldn’t be scored. Believe it or not, director Gondry was approached back in ’97 to helm the project. This was well before he entered the spotlight with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Hornet was supposed to be his debut film, but it got passed on and on to the likes of Stephen Chow and even Kevin Smith—who I think under his watchful eye might have made the movie work betterbefore eventually landing back in Gondry’s lap again. Hot potato, hot potato. Here we went on the money-go-round.

Then there was the writing team to consider. The likes of Edward “Robocop” Neumeier and Christopher “The Usual Suspects” McQuarrie were tapped, but it finally fell to Rogen and buddy Evan Goldberg to create a new script from scratch, eschewing the hard line the original Hornet had and instead injecting their usual goofball histrionics into their final product. In all fairness, Hornet was funny, but perhaps too much so to translate into an action movie. The final product is slathered in the ribald tones of Knocked Up and Superbad.

Finally, the casting. Uh, no one fit the bill as the leads. So since Rogen and Goldberg held the pen, and no one else could be qualified to deliver the lines, Rogen got to wear the mask (ably backed by Chou’s Kato). Rogen is the anti-leading man, and the last guy you’d ever smell to don the cape as some superhero, radio show or no. Doubtless that this also was gimmick, maybe capitalizing on the comic actor’s rising star in order to pull a bait-and-switch as he’d pull a Michael Keaton like in Burton’s Batman.

No. Not really. Not at all. The Green Hornet was your typical Rogen farce, but with some really boss action scenes tempered with his trademark snarky repartee. Take it or leave it. By its turnout, I don’t think most folks took to The Green Hornet.

The overriding theme of the movie is what I call “controlled hamminess.” The acting isn’t bad. It’s serviceable, but it lends very little weight necessary for an action vehicle, even if it’s a comedic romp like this one. I’ll cut to the chase: as far as I can see, regardless of the role he’s in, Rogen will always be a schlumpy quip machine. It’s his bread-and-butter, and he’s in that mode 100% of the time. It goes so far as when I once saw him on CNN espousing the need for congress to grant more research money for further studies in finding a cure for Alzheimer’s, and even that delivery was riddled with jokes and barbs. CNN. Congress. Alzheimer’s. Yuk yuk yuk.

Don’t misunderstand me. Rogen is a funny guy, and he gets a lot of good lines in the movie (hell, he wrote half of them), but wisecracks alone does not make for an endearing lead. Does he have to mug in every movie he’s in, really? His Britt Reid as reckless hero can only go so far on one-liners alone. The schtick gets repetitive, and what’s really repetitive is the reserved scenery chewing, the aforementioned ham in action.

The whole cast is a combo of ciphers and caricatures. We have our spoiled brat Britt, sage Kato who knows everything (this is not an exaggeration. Kato knows everything), bubbly and over-eager Cameron Diaz—who seems to be revisiting her role from 1994’s The Mask—as Britt’s secretary and Waltz as an underworld boss with an inferiority complex. We got no subtlety with this rogues gallery, which makes for a very one-sided movie watching experience.

I say one-sided because the movie feels like it’s ignoring the audience. The cast is clearly having a ball tearing it up on screen, but like a heated conversation you’re witnessing, not contributing to, you kind of want to tap Rogen and Chou on the shoulders and say, “Hey guys? Remember me?” Nah. More jokes! More explosions! More drinking!

Still, this one-sidedness lends a few perks. If you don’t give a sh*t what the audience thinks, then you’re free to ramp it up, get all hammy, flip us the bird and carry on, carry on. And boy, does Hornet carry on. It can best be described as having an odd, anti-Lethal Weapon vibe. The movie’s a “buddy cop” story to be sure, and Rogen and Chou have chemistry with good humor, and their antics not only create a mixed bag of funny/action, but cement the whole “who gives a sh*t?” feel to the movie.

The ham-tastic acting also adds to this lightheartedness. All the players have a just slightly under the radar one-dimensional characterization that adds to the humor without making it dissolve into pure camp. The comedy aspect helps a lot, especially since the action takes a back seat a lot of the time. I’ll admit I was snickering a lot watching Hornet, almost exclusively at Rogen’s wisecracks. Chou got a few good lines in too, but on the whole, it was Rogen’s show all the way. It kind of reflected the mentality of the original Hornet TV show. Van Williams’ Britt Reid/Green Hornet played it very straight, almost dry and totally opposite Rogen’s constant jokey banter. Williams never cracked a smile, but Lee did.

Back in the day, when the classic Green Hornet show was on air, it was considered a joke—a passive joke, mind you—that Kato was the true brains of the outfit. The “man behind the curtain” if you will. That subtle character dynamic comes to the fore here as an outright gag, almost as a refresher lending some seriousness to the job of superheroics against Britt’s endless, clueless bantering. It also enhances some racist undertones, which were decidedly shied away from on the TV show.

The movie does seem to exaggerate said undertones on the TV series. Very little then—being the progressive 60’s—put Williams or Lee under the lens as the first interracial team of heroes. I’d like to think that Lee was such a charming actor, such room for either bleeding-heart white guilt or shooting a spotlight on the mixed team-up made the whole social context superfluous. Williams and Lee made a good team, straight up. While Williams was grim, determined crime-fighter, Lee got to be funny, smart and lighthearted in his role as the “subordinate” sidekick. He got the best action scenes overall.

The on-the-nose social commentary or maybe exercise in irony to the layman is played to the hilt here in the movie. C’mon, for those who saw it, is what we want to remember from the TV show as a complement to Batman—with all its corniness—merely the introducing the first inter-racial duo (Okay, I suppose I Spy did it first, but that show was all about subtly, going along with its whole “espionage” theme. I wasn’t remembered for high action—let alone kung fu—only a very young, pre-rape accusation Bill Cosby palling around with TV stalwart Robert Cup) or the launch pad for Bruce Lee’s rise to fame? The implications were vital then but hackneyed now. Why play on this play-for-keeps spin for entertainment’s sake? It’s really weak and insulting, very uncool for 2011. It’s a glaring black spot on an otherwise lighthearted and funny film.

Another aspect about the movie—and other would-be, 21st Century comedies of its ilk—I disliked it the endless, winking pop culture in-jokes injected into a story that is ultimately designed for an audience-at-large to not get said in-jokes. The whole thing I said about not giving a sh*t about what the audience cares for can be freeing, but when taken too far you are really alienating the audience. After a while, the jokes morph into the standard, razor-thin plot of your typical episode of Family Guy. Sure, the cast and crew get it, but shame on you dear viewer for missing the joke. Too bad you weren’t there at the brainstorming session at Columbia. It’s just baiting for the fading demo, and rather cynical for the rising.

Still, for all its broad and lenient takes on the legacy, Hornet is terribly amusing, something the old radio serials and TV eps were not. Decidely not. Back then, “serious” superhero show just plumb didn’t exist. Hell, refer back to Batman. Nowadays, most comic book movies are besotted with drama, gravitas, endless navel-gazing only punctuated with the occasional one-liner or winking joke. It’s a Shakespearean thing: inject comedy right before tragedy to amplify the drama. It’s been done so often over the past decade that a would-be superhero flick littered with non-stop jokes, puns, wisecracks bucks the trend. This might be the most refreshing—and eventual downfall—of Hornet. It goes too far here. We’ve been set up across two acts to fall into the trap of info-dump in the third.

Hornet’s third act seems forced, especially after 90 minutes of joking and rather nifty, albeit limited action scenes. At this point, it’s all about the collateral damage. There’s so much of it one should only see it as an extension of the winking joke running throughout the film. The final scenes, with all their whiz-bang, are incredibly forced. It’s like Gondry and company made a bum’s rush to compensate for all the fluff in the first two-thirds of the movie to inject a bit of heaviness now. So much so that the resolution and Britt’s redemption are crammed into maybe three minutes (at most) of hard story before sh*t starts getting all kerblooey again.

And holy f*ck do Gondry, Rogen, Goldberg and their accomplices throw everything into the kitchen sink and crashing through the window. After 90 minutes of a left-of-center action/comedy with a few cool scenes of chaos, Gondry tears the lid off the pot and the rest is pyrotechnics, shattered glass, more of that hamminess condensed like a can of Campbell’s and crazy car chases through multiple floors of an office complex. Extension of the jokes? You decide (I already did: yes).

Yeah, The Green Hornet was a big joke. It either ended up that way between all the nonsense the project was smothered with in production hell or the comedy Cuisinart treatment it got from Rogan and Goldberg. There were a some cool action scenes, rather funny one-liners from Rogen, Chou’s Kato was great (albeit an over-inflated version of Lee’s character from back in the day), those Black Beauties were awesome and Diaz wore a lot of short skirts. But overall, Hornet was jumbled, and came across as a relic of a time far removed from 2011. And now that I mention it, since Hornet was on the whole an action/comedy a la Lethal Weapon, thumbing its nose at all the rampant, heavy comic book movies of our time, wouldn’t this jumble be considered a relevant balloon-popping of the relentless Marvel titles gumming up the multiplexes now?

I dunno. Maybe. In the long run, despite its glaring flaws, Hornet was entertaining. Sideswiped of the nostalgia ticket and fingering its fellow comic movie contemporaries. It was dumb, and that’s not always a bad thing. In a cinema world of guys in tights waxing way too philosophical on the nature of being, a good fart joke is almost always welcome before the credits roll.

Oh yeah. That whole nostalgia market? Just keep your cards close to your chest. Whatever you personally regard as representative of your Golden Years Hollywood will never catch. They’re too busy trying to capitalize on someone else’s, who’s probably already dead.

Hornet sting!

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. I’m only saying so because I didn’t dislike The Green Hornet outright. It’s a lousy superhero movie, but it also doesn’t really try to be a good one. Consider it a time-waster; something you’d find on the TV some boring Saturday afternoon, with you having nothing else to do but tune in. It’s chewing gum, and that’s okay from time to time. Plus it’s funny, which is never really truly wasteful.

Stray Observations…

  • “My gun has two barrels. That’s not boring.”
  • Hornet has a lot of blue language for a PG-13 movie. Good.
  • “We’re just two guys who stole a head.”
  • The Black Beauty’s headlights are green. Nice touch.
  • “See you in an hour…”
  • Boy, Edward Furlong has really fallen on hard times.
  • “You need nunchuks then…”
  • Fun fact: The Green Hornet turned out to be quite the hit in Lee’s homeland, doubtless due to the “local boy from Hong Kong does good” story. The Chinese knew Bruce’s TV debut as The Kato Show. For the few Yanks that caught it, it was easy to see why.
  • “That’s a very big gun.”
  • I heard once that Adam West complained in the movie press that he wasn’t considered for a re-cast as his classic Caped Crusader role for Burton’s movie. This was in 1989. The TV series aired almost a quarter-century prior, Adam. Do the math.
  • “Go be a journalist! I’ll kick ass!”
  • The Black Beauty getting plowed under…I saw that ep of Mythbusters. Maybe you did too.
  • “Hand over the sushi!”
  • Hornet has a very cool, very eclectic soundtrack. Any movie that dares to bookend Vivaldi with Coolio’s “Gangster’s Paradise” deserves some mention.
  • “Let’s roll, Kato.”

Next Installment…

According to the NYPD’s criminal records archive, 1981 was A Most Violent Year.