The Wastrel son of a crusading newspaper publisher, Britt Reid (Seth Rogen) wants his life to have meaning which means kicking ass. When he discovers that Kato (Jay Chou), his late father's car mechanic and coffee brewer, is a whiz at martial arts and just about everything else, Britt has a rare brainstorm: "We'll pose as villains, but we'll act like heroes." In fact, he poses as a hero but mostly acts like a jerk; Kato does all the cool stuff, the driving and kicking and dynamiting. So although Britt thinks he's in charge Indiana Jones to Kato's Short Round or Inspector Clouseau to his kung fu manservant (named, similarly, Cato) it's he who stumbles into catastrophes from which Kato must save him. Kato's the hero here, and Britt is his sidekick's sidekick.
The notion of a Caucasian leading man playing second banana to his Asian valet is the one inspiration of Michel Gondry's The Green Hornet, the year's first 3-D B movie. Or, really, bee movie, since it is another of Britt's doltish epiphanies that his superhero should be named the Green Bee. It's Kato who proposes the more imposing nom de plume.
Based on the 1930s radio series written by Fran Striker (though his boss, George W. Trendle, gets creator credit here), as well as two movie serials, a comic book and the 1966 TV show that introduced U.S. audiences to Bruce Lee, the new film might be called a faithful parody. It honors the main characters' names and occupations, their slick sedan (that "rolling arsenal," the Black Beauty) and the unfulfilled romance between Britt and Lenore Case (Cameron Diaz), his gal Friday at the newspaper. But it's even truer to Rogen's screen persona, from Knocked Up and Pineapple Express, of the amiable underachiever. It also adheres devoutly to the creed of the buddy action film, in which the heroes cause more collateral damage than the villains much of Los Angeles is in rubble by the end of the movie and guys are at the center and women are just the accessories.
In the script, by Rogen and his perennial pal Evan Goldberg, even Britt's backstory is a male dilemma. His father James (Tom Wilkinson) was a bold journalist but a sadistic dad; Britt must resolve those contradictions while he does battle with another father figure, the drug lord Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz, an Oscar winner for Inglourious Basterds, who is no luckier in finding a suitable comic tone than his character is in destroying Britt). But this is a movie about brotherhood, and Chou, the Taiwanese actor-singer, has a baby-faced steeliness that makes Kato an attractive opposite to Britt's bullying layabout.
Director Gondry, far from his oneiric Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, keeps things cruising and exploding, while Rogen attends to the rowdy humor. The mix is not nearly classic but is congenial enough to warm up a January weekend and perhaps to stoke a sequel. Call it The Green Hornet Strikes Again? No: Kato II!