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The Green Hornet: Nice Buzz, No Sting

You know going in that something’s up with The Green Hornet. A superhero movie starring schlubby Seth Rogen and directed by the French visual magician Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)? Like Watchmen, this isn’t so much a superhero movie as a critique of same — this time from a comic point of view.

In that sense, it’s the inverse of the old 1966 ABC TV series, which for the most part played it straight (and would help propel Bruce Lee to eventual superstardom along the way), in contradistinction to the network’s infamously campy pop art take on Batman.

Rogen, who co-wrote the script with his boyhood friend Evan Goldberg, with whom he also wrote Superbad and Pineapple Express, stars as a wealthy playboy like Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark. But Rogen’s character, Britt Reid, is a spoiled, whiny slacker, so cosseted that the story really gets rolling when he discovers someone has bungled his cappuccino. By this point, he has lost his father, an L.A. newspaper magnate, to a fatal bee sting — but it’s the bad java that really stings Britt.

Demanding to know the details behind his morning pick-me-up, he encounters an obscure servant on his gigantic estate whom he’s never met — Kato (Taiwanese pop singer Jay Chou). Not only can Kato make a dazzling cup of joe, he’s also a martial-arts master, designer, engineer, mechanic, ladykiller and all-around genius. Picture an ass-kicking Leonardo da Vinci in black leather and motorcycle cap — who happens to work as a gofer. “We’ve both been completely wasting our potential,” Britt tells him. “You, a little more than me.” Soon, the two of them adopt disguises (Britt wears a green mask) for their first covert mission — sawing the head off a bronze statue of Britt’s father, who used to be mean to his son.

By accident, the two of them become masked crime fighters taking on L.A.’s organized crime boss Chudnofsky (a funny and merciless Christoph Waltz of Inglourious Basterds), and since Britt has inherited his father’s newspaper, he splashes the news about himself and his sidekick all over Page One. He even comes up with a nickname for the trench-coated crusader nobody but Kato knows is his alter ego: “The Green … Bee!” Kato suggests “Hornet” sounds cooler. Also, Kato doesn’t really like being called a sidekick, especially when his boss is an oaf. “I’m Indy, you’re Short Round, ” Britt insists. He tells Kato to back off Britt’s pretty new secretary (Cameron Diaz), who seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of crime for a temp and comes up with surprisingly perspicacious tips about what Chudnofsky might do next. But she, like everyone else, thinks Britt is a jerk. It doesn’t help that he says she’s in the “twilight” of her years.

Rogen, who has lost weight but still doesn’t look like he spends a lot of time in kickboxing classes, has the kind of charisma to make this foolhardy character likeable. Britt is constantly talking up his grandiose plans and his boundless self-esteem in a hip-hop inflected idiot’s patter. “You said my outfit was pimp!” he protests to Kato, in one of many highly quotable lines. Remember how sweet Austin Powers was when he tried to be cool? Britt has the same quality.

Meanwhile, the mild but lethal Waltz character moans that no one thinks he’s scary (he has a hilarious scene with Rogen’s buddy James Franco, as a nightclub boss). “I think you’re having a midlife crisis,” one of his henchmen tells him. Just to perk up his own flagging spirits as the Green Hornet grabs all the glory, he decides to become a supervillain and take on the hero on the latter’s own terms.

The film, which is being shown in a sometimes murky 3D, combines splendid visuals with chaotic action sequences (the climax, which contrasts cubicle-drone office life with shootouts and car chases, is reminiscent of The Blues Brothers). Gondry has a painterly way of framing images to make them shine and adds a dazzling new twist to 3D filmmaking during a sequence when he splits the screen into half a dozen or more panels showing competing images — then makes some panels pop out of the screen at different depths. At times Gondry’s visuals are so striking that you lose track of what people are saying onscreen.

That would be a shame, because Rogen’s motormouth stream of B.S. is at least as funny as it was in Pineapple Express, a bright movie that overstayed its welcome and got bogged down in an overly complicated climax. Like that movie, The Green Hornet gets a little too fond of smashing stuff up in the closing act, but even so it’s a wicked and original treat, a welcome piece of comic mayhem to warm up the winter.