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Heroes and villains: 'The Green Hornet' and 'Casino Jack'

Jay Chou and Seth Rogen in "The Green Hornet."
Columbia Pictures
Jay Chou and Seth Rogen in "The Green Hornet."

I don't know that "The Green Hornet" really needs me to come to its defense, as it had a pretty good weekend: The film pulled in a respectable $34 million. But, then, the film cost $120 million, and has gotten pretty thoroughly trounced by some critics. Roger Ebert, as an example, called it an "almost unendurable demonstration of a movie with nothing to be about." As sentences go, this one comes perilously close to making no sense at all, but you get the idea that he really, really disliked the thing. And I'm not sure why.

The film, scripted by star Seth Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg and directed by the never-less-than-interesting Michel Gondry, is often a bit of a mess, but it's a fascinating mess, and I think its messiness is deliberate. Rogen went back to the old pulp radio show where the story originated and noticed that it's a very odd tale, and he's highlighted its oddness. The Green Hornet is a vigilante in the mold of Batman, whom he predated: He doesn't have any actual superpowers, but for the fact that he's exceptionally wealthy. He's closer to The Lone Ranger in a lot of ways than he is a modern superhero; in fact, he's supposed to be The Lone Ranger's great-grandnephew. And he's lucky to have a sidekick, a fellow named Kato, who is both a skilled martial artist and can build him an automobile that functions like an urban tank.
Rogen takes great interest in Kato. Because, in a universe that was a meritocracy, Kato would be the superhero. But instead he's functionally The Green Hornet's employee, and so is relegated to sidekick status, and Rogen and the actor who plays Kato, Jay Chou, spend the film simmering about this. Rogen's Green Hornet is a spoiled playboy, and Rogen doesn't play him sympathetically — he's prone to tantrums, incurious about the world, incompetent as a superhero, openly sexist and frequently unconsciously racist. He knows Kato is a far better hero than he is, and Kato knows it too, and every interaction between the two is freighted with jealousy. It is far and away the most neurotic vigilante team every created for the screen; it's also the most credible.
They set their sites in a villain who is likewise neurotic, a crime boss played by the extraordinary Christoph Waltz, who spends the entire movie fretting, rather dimly, that he's neither scary nor cool enough to rule the underworld. He occupies his days at a garbage dump with two musclebound underlings, sulking about this, despite the fact that he's actually quite terrifying. When called on to commit violence, he does so immediately, brutally, and heartlessly.
It's no wonder the studio panicked about this film, shelving it for months. It reverses the usual action-film formula, which is light on psychological depth but heavy on spectacular action scenes. "The Green Hornet" spends most of its time on its characters' neurosis, and the action scenes have a unspooling incompetence to them — in Rogen's world, nobody's ever completely ready for a fight, and nobody really knows what to do when they're in one. The films plotting is primarily around Rogen's growth as a character. He has inherited his father's newspaper empire, and must, by the end of the film, become a skilled newspaperman; he fails definitively at this. He must also become a successful crimefighter; he mostly fails at this. And he most desperately needs to grow up; here he has some faltering success. I can understand why Ebert might have been driven into babbling angry nonsense by this — the film is all buildup and almost no catharsis, which can be maddening. We want a definitive transformation in our characters in a film like this — they need to come out the other end heroes. But Rogen seems to view superheroism as akin to Freudian therapy — it's very painful, very expensive, and takes a very, very long time.

Kevin Spacey and Berry Pepper in "Casino Jack."
Courtesy of Art Takes Over
Kevin Spacey and Berry Pepper in "Casino Jack."

I won't defend Jack Abramoff, the man or the movie. The man, of course, is the notorious K Street lobbyist who has become a sort of symbol of Bush-era greed, and wound up doing time for a dozen of so schemes to peel money from special-interest groups to provide access to corrupt politicians. The film is "Casino Jack," which features Kevin Spacey as Abramoff, and it's a passable retelling of the story. The film tries to do something that we in the news industry call "emptying the notebook" — it tries to fit every single detail of Abramoff's odd career onto the screen. But it's too much; the guy simply had too many greedy fingers in too many unrelated pies. The film compensates with flashy staging and editing, courtesy of the late director George Hickenlooper. But this superimposes a satiric sense over a film whose script seems to be foundering on all the details it has to communicate.
Spacey's good as Abramoff, but, then, Spacey is typically good. He neatly limns the man's many idiosyncrasies — the fact that he became an Orthodox Jew after watching "Fiddler on the Roof," which seems at odds with his rampantly contemptuous behavior. For instance, Abramoff worked to a very large extent as a lobbyist for Indian casinos, but he tended to call the people he represented "monkeys," "troglodytes," and "Tonto" — hey, there's the Lone Ranger again! Abramoff simultaneously worked hard to build a Jewish boys school and tried to fund it in one of the most misconceived schemes to take over a cruise ship casino business in history, which eventually involved mob assassinations. He was a contradictory man, and Spacey plays all those contradictions as being necessary. I don't know how this character could have been successfully crammed into one film — perhaps he couldn't, perhaps Abramoff is too much for one film. But this one is a crowded mess, albeit a fitfully entertaining one.
I would like to add one detail that the film left out, because I think it demonstrates that there was nothing that Abramoff touched that wasn't somehow sullied. The man spent several years in Hollywood trying to break into film — mostly unsuccessfully, but his efforts did result in one film, "Red Scorpion," starring Dolph Lundgren. "Casino Jack's" Abramoff has posters of the film hung around his house and office, and it looks like a fairly typical Eighties actioner. But it wasn't. The story told of a Russian agent who became a turncoat in Africa, fighting the communist presence there.
The film was funded, in part, by the South African government, and filmed, in part, in South Africa. This violated an international boycott against the country, which was then in the waning and among the most brutal years of apartheid. Additionally, the film subtly makes the case that opposition to apartheid is a Soviet front, which is simply reprehensible and was widely decried. It's hard to imagine what sort of world we were living in two decades ago, when unscrupulous politicians tried to force their agendas by denouncing their opponents as followers of Karl Marx, and amoral millionaire lobbyists used right-wing-funded and controlled media as a tool of propaganda. What a nightmare that was; how grateful we all are that it's over.

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