Michel Gondry Flexed on Us

There’s a lot about The Green Hornet that doesn’t work — and its co-writer/star Seth Rogen will be the first to tell you so. In fact, his exact words about making that film were: “A fucking nightmare.” The nightmare extended to the film’s release, reception, and reputation; Sony dumped the film in January of 2011 to middling reviews and decent-ish box office returns, but its producer Neal Moritz concluded that they simply “made the movie for too much money” for any continuation as a franchise. And beyond the stink surrounding its Hollywood machinations and shrugged response, the film itself plays with a ton of thuds upon modern watch, particularly in its casual use of homophobia for comedy and sexism for its B-story (the way this film treats Cameron Diaz, framing her boss Rogen’s constant, explicit sexual harassment for endearing laughs, is maddening to a body-shaking degree).

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The Green Hornet review. Matt reviews Michel Gondry’s The Green Hornet starring Seth Rogen, Jay Chou, Christoph Waltz, and Cameron Diaz.

But there’s one aspect of The Green Hornet that still soars — and even 10 years later, after we’ve been bombarded with tons of superhero content year after year, still holds up against and even surpasses much of its competition. Its visual language, particularly in its surreally crafted action sequences, are unique, stylish, idiosyncratic, memorable, and proof positive of the value in hiring directors with a singular point of view when making big budget blockbuster films. For this, we have The Green Hornet’s director to thank: Michel Gondry.

Michel Gondry on the set of The Green Hornet
Image via Sony Pictures Releasing

Before the trend of hiring interesting indie directors to make blockbusters was cool, Gondry’s choice for the film was an odd one, given his CV thus far. The French filmmaker, musician, and visual artist broke through the American cinema scene with a crop of inventive, attention-grabbing, and visually experimental commercials and music videos. In clips for Björk, Daft PunkFoo FightersKylie Minogue, and many more, Gondry established his visual identity as one of equal parts emotional whimsy and technical wizardry. The effects in these clips feel refreshingly handmade, like a particularly precocious child going ham on LEGOs, but also feel like he’s creating a new set of instructions for others to follow in his wake. The power of these clips led to a feature film career, with pre-Green Hornet films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep, and Be Kind Rewind calcifying his startling visual impulses and bottomless emotional purity.

None of these qualities scream “superhero film director,” especially in the early 2010s when the contemporary superhero films were either ultra-serious like The Dark Knight or ultra-snarky like Iron Man. Gondry’s work is about as earnestly playful as you can get; even the surreally scary descents into madness seen in Eternal Sunshine shine off the screen with sparkling invention. But The Green Hornet, from inception, wasn’t meant to feel like every other contemporary superhero film, down to its positioning as a comedic deconstruction from the team of Rogen and Evan Goldberg, hot off mega-hits like Superbad and Pineapple Express (the latter being quite the effective action genre deconstruction itself). On paper and in theory, I could see why this power trio could bring the best out of each other, with Gondry giving Rogen and Goldberg’s sometimes shaggy explorations a sense of intention, and Rogen and Goldberg giving Gondry’s head-in-the-clouds visions a sense of groundedness.

According to Rogen, this didn’t happen so much. He positions Gondry’s work as the worst case scenario of hiring a low-budget indie director on a big-budget superhero flick coming true. “Gondry, the director, is wonderful at smaller scale stuff but I think he did not mesh well,” told Rogen to Marc Maron on his WTF podcast. “It was his first movie with more than a $20 million dollar budget and this was a $120 million dollar budget. And we had never made an action movie, he had never made an action movie.” First of all, again, Rogen and Goldberg’s Pineapple Express is indeed an action movie (directed, it should be noted, by a similarly low-budget indie director getting the call to make a studio film, David Gordon Green). And second of all, while Gondry may have never made a traditional action film, he is an objectively powerful visual director, and his command of visual storytelling and experimentation simply shines in modern viewings of The Green Hornet as its strongest suit by far.

Seth Rogen and Jay Chou in The Green Hornet
Image via Sony Pictures Releasing

Heck, even before the action kicks in, The Green Hornet looks great in its most traditionally necessary scenes. Gondry and his Oscar-nominated DP John Schwartzman often favor wides, positioning their human subjects curiously absorbed by the various, handsome settings of mansions, newsrooms, and cityscapes; when we do cut to mediums and close-ups in these scenes, they feel intentional in dissemination rather than a boring default. It’s a welcome change of pace from the standard usage of alternating close-ups in shot-reverse-shot we often get in the perfunctory dialogue scenes of contemporary superhero cinema, and it’s a subtle piece of foreshadowing as to how Gondry and Schwartzman will cover the action scenes once those kick into gear.

To bridge us into the moments of out-and-out action, there are two sequences in the first act of the film that Gondry elevates, tantalizing us with what will come once the gloves are fully off. To set up Rogen’s character Britt Reid as a playboy buffoon who’s in no shape to become a superhero uptop, we transition zippily from an appealing crime-flick-feeling opening sequence (Christoph Waltz with a two-barrelled pistol is always welcome) by tilting along a car’s path down a street until the frame is upside down, matching this motion with the already upside down logo of LA hotel The Standard, and landing on Rogen chucking a TV out the window of his hotel room. It’s a stunning piece of filmic construction that goes about three steps further than you’d expect any other silly superhero comedy to go — and then, it’s immediately followed up by a time lapse one shot sequence where Rogen and a one night stand cavort around a bunch of fancy cars in cartoonishly fast motion. Gondry is so obviously here to play, here to use this bigger scope to fill every scene, no matter how “standard,” with invention, and it’s such an infectious rush to watch.

Jay Chou in The Green Hornet
Image via Sony Pictures Releasing

In the mythology of the Green Hornet, Kato (played here suavely by Jay Chou) has always been cooler than Britt. Cannily, this film leans into it hard, constantly playing Kato’s obvious badassery and Britt’s obvious tomfoolery for laughs (and some surprising pathos; it’s lovely to watch Rogen play an earnest interest into Chou’s story and life). And when Gondry starts to take us into action territory, he uses Kato as the correct character vessel. As Kato shows Britt some of the hi-tech skills he developed while working for Britt’s father (Tom Wilkinson, appropriate bad dad energy), he removes a couple of beer bottle caps… by smacking them off sleekly. Gondry and Schwartzman follow these caps through the air in a clean, smooth, slow-mo shot (obviously CGI-assisted, but no less cool), aligning themselves with Britt’s incredulous POV. And then, most subtly but most impressively, the shot tracks backward, re-settles on Rogen’s face, and continues normally. So many contemporary shots that obviously use visual effects as a kind of gimmick obviously have a stopping point before hard-cutting to the next “normal” shot; here, Gondry’s tactile sense of play and push makes it all feel that more immersive.

And when Kato starts fighting people, look out. “Katovision” is the obvious action technique of note in the picture (though isn’t it telling that there’s so many other moments to highlight before we even get there?), and frankly, Guy Ritchie owes Gondry a drink for copping elements of it in his Sherlock Holmes adaptation. Kato begins his fights by surveying his enemies in stillness, with Gondry zooming on individual’s weaknesses in surreally morphing slow-mo shots, before rollicking out to a series of smooth, unbroken, Steadicam shots in which Chou, with balletic grace, pummels the stuffing out of people. And oh yeah — Kato is such a good “in the moment visual planner” that his Katovision involves making objects multiply out of thin air; a technique that Gondry played with in this Chemical Brothers video, a technique that astonishes me every time it’s used in this superhero film, a technique so rife with casual surrealism that you just can’t expect to see anything like it in superhero films made today. Kato’s fight sequences are utter joys, handmade spectacles to take in, crafted with equal parts smooth professionalism and rough-edged humanity. And then Gondry uses it to give Rogen’s character a brilliant arc; in the climactic action sequence (lit with stylized gels and shadowy colors), we’re treated to “Green Hornet-vision,” where our hero finally learns to be a hero and gets his own piece of high-flying, visually splendid martial arts.

Seth Rogen in The Green Hornet
Image via Sony Pictures Releasing

I want to touch on Rogen’s WTF interview one final time. As he talked about Sony’s oppressive overseeing of the film, he mentioned this curious gulf in attention and priority: “It’s weird what risks they’re willing to take. The script is under great scrutiny, the lines, the characters, the dialogue, he should have a father, it should be this, it should be that… And then things like the action sequences, which is really where all the money’s getting spent, go under no scrutiny whatsoever. No one looks at it.” Perhaps this is why The Green Hornet’s screenplay can feel dated and creaky while its visuals still fly freely. Perhaps we need to let more go-for-broke directors like Gondry craft their action sequences however they want without unneeded scrutiny. Perhaps, like the stories and arcs of Britt Reid and Kato, the visual filmmaking’s sense of idiosyncratic personality and attention-seeking invention are needed features, not needing-to-be-squashed bugs, and worth paying attention to for the future.

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