Seth Rogen doesn't look back fondly on The Green Hornet. In interviews since the movie's disappointing January 2011 release, the actor has laid the blame on factors like inexperience with vast budgets, studio meddling, and PG-13 restrictions on why the movie didn't launch the next big superhero franchise. But despite all this, there's a lot to love in this movie.
This is why The Green Hornet is the movie you need to watch before it leaves Netflix this week on October 17.
"It was a fucking nightmare," Seth Rogen said in a 2013 appearance on Marc Maron's podcast WTF. While Rogen credited director Michel Gondry as "wonderful," he acknowledged that Gondry, an art-house filmmaker, "had never made an action movie." Neither had Rogen and creative partner Evan Goldberg — their 2008 hit Pineapple Express, though billed as an action flick, was more of a satire that maintained the authentic aesthetic of a Die Hard sequel.
"It was just the budget," Rogen said. "We can’t make a really edgy fun movie for our types of people for that amount of money. There’s just too much skepticism that it draws. You can’t take risks, [the studio] wouldn’t let us take risks anyway. And that makes it very hard to make a movie that’s exciting.”
It's unfortunate Rogen wasn't happy about making The Green Hornet, a movie that is actually plenty of fun with lots of creative potential. Sure, it lacks Rogen's usual edginess, but it has something else that made it unique. For Asian-American audiences, it was an event movie as it innovated something the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Extended Universe took far too long to do: Feature a lead Asian superhero.
In The Green Hornet, Britt Reid (Rogen) is the party-hard playboy son of a newspaper mogul. When his father dies during a crime wave in Los Angeles, Britt struggles to run the family's media empire. Britt also meets his father's chauffeur, Kato (Jay Chou), a Chinese immigrant and human Swiss Army Knife, which inspires a wild idea: Britt and Kato will save the city as superheroes. Also in the movie are Christoph Waltz, Cameron Diaz as love interest Eleanor Case, and in a minor role, a pre-Stranger Things David Harbour.
"Will you take my hand?" Britt asks Kato, who replies: "I'll go with you, but, I don't want to touch you."
That exchange sums up the tone of The Green Hornet. Despite its sins — pacing, a tonally awkward villain, the lack of one good one-on-one fight scene for Kato, a very weird age joke at Diaz's expense, and the septic cleansing of Rogen's voice — it still offers subversive fun the Avengers are too stuffy for. Try not to snort when, after a visually captivating street fight (where Kato's survival instincts look like a video game), Rogen tells a thug to "Eat shit!" as he Goodfellas kicks him on the ground.
Of all its problems, the pairing of Rogen and Chou as a duo, reminiscent of buddy movies from the '80s and '90s, is The Green Hornet's greatest accomplishment. Yes, the movie is riddled with problems, but I'd give anything to see Chou and Rogen reunite as these goofballs.
It's funny how much Green Hornet thumbs its nose at superhero movies in its arrival before the genre's unprecedented evolution through films like Avengers: Endgame. The original character came into existence earlier than most, predating even Superman. Originating in radio, the Green Hornet was created by George W. Trendle and Fran Striker in 1936. But the only reason the IP has legs is because, in 1967, the producers of the camp classic Batman also created a Green Hornet series starring Van Williams and, famously, Bruce Lee as Kato.
If not for Bruce Lee, the Green Hornet likely would have faded into obscurity. But as superhero movies took over the new millennium, the rights to the Green Hornet pin-balled between studios. At various times, George Clooney, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Jet Li were set to star. In 2004, Kevin Smith was a writer/director.
In 2007, the Green Hornet landed at Sony. Seth Rogen, fresh from Knocked Up, signed on with his writing partner Evan Goldberg as screenwriter. Stephen Chow, the action-comedy genius from Hong Kong behind 2004's Kung Fu Hustle, was to play Kato. But when Chow dropped out, the producers found Kato in Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou. (His 2001 single, "Nunchucks," plays in the film's end credits.) Chou learned English within a month and continued to learn on set thanks to a tutor and the efforts of Seth Rogen and Cameron Diaz.
"Cameron Diaz also would be like an English teacher to me," Chou told Hyphen in a 2011 interview. "If I say something wrong, she’ll help me. [Rogen and Diaz] were both very nice and would help me with the script."
The presence of Jay Chou as Kato cannot be understated. Besides inheriting a role Bruce Lee played, the role was a lead Asian superhero, a milestone neither Marvel and DC has yet pulled off in cinema. (Marvel's Shang-Chi, due in theaters July 2021, will receive significant attention as an Asian-led superhero ensemble. But that's next year.)
Missing in the plentiful negative reviews for The Green Hornet was the joy of seeing a white stoner hang out with a cool-as-frick Asian guy. It's a little thing that went so far with me, personally. Yes, we can be cool and goofy. Asian-Americans aren't afforded that dimension or prominence a lot in mainstream Hollywood movies even now. So when The Green Hornet offered a superhero buddy comedy with famous white people and Jay Chou of course I was there opening weekend, dragging my white friends along.
It's why I feel extra sore over the failure of Green Hornet. In another timeline where it was a hit, we'd be in a world where there were more posters of Jay Chou, front and center with Seth Rogen and Cameron Diaz. Perhaps a Shang-Chi movie wouldn't arrive late into the Marvel cycle, but earlier. Imagine what else we could have seen. Imagine that world.
I like to think of that world whenever I watch The Green Hornet.
The Green Hornet is streaming now on Netflix until October 17.