The Green Hornet, which originally debuted in 1936 as a popular radio serial, has received its 21st century 3D makeover, with Seth Rogen as publisher turned crimefighter Britt Reid and Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou as Reid's enforcer and partner, Kato. Together, they don masks and pose as gangsters to infiltrate the criminal underworld. Cameron Diaz is Lenore, a secretary turned reporter who helps Reid and Kato understand the criminal mind, and Christolph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds) plays a crime boss with an inferiority complex looking to take the Green Hornet out.
Directed by Michel Gondry, the indie darling behind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the screenplay by Rogen and Evan Goldberg achieves something many superhero films have tried but failed to deliver -- how a person with enthusiasm but no special abilities and, to be honest, sub-average intelligence and courage would act if they tried to be a superhero, which Rogen handles with the bravado of a slacker manchild who's finally found something to get excited about. The Green Hornet is also unique for showing the origin of a crimefighting duo instead of a lone vigilante, exploring the tensions that would naturally arise as they jockey to avoid the demeaning title of sidekick.
But perhaps the freshest twist in the Green Hornet is that the real superhero is actually Kato, with his seemingly superhuman martial arts abilities and Tony Stark-esque engineering skills, which he uses to build their weapon -- and gadget-filled supercar, the Black Beauty. One could also argue that the film's real star isn't Rogen, but Chou, and the importance of an Asian actor co-starring in a mega-budget American crowdpleaser should not be overlooked.
Why? Because, for better or worse, it's a pretty big deal. Asian actors simply aren't getting offered many lead or even supporting roles, even for ones where the characters' race is non-specific. Often, Asians are only cast if the characters are specifically Asian, often leading to stereotypes like Japanese shutterbug tourists; the owners of restaurants, corner stores, or dry cleaners; exchange students; Asian gang members; martial artists/ninjas/samurais; or anything that would seem "funnier" if done with a thick Asian accent.
For years, people decried TV shows and movies with "token" black characters as faux displays of diversity, but I wish Asians were that lucky. I'd be more than happy to see Asians playing friends, co-workers, neighbors, etc. where a character's Asian ethnicity was not their defining/only characteristic. At the very least, exposure like this would get more Asian actors working, giving them the chance to be noticed and considered for meatier roles. In the bigger picture, it would help combat the still pervasive perception that Asians are always foreigners, or might as well be since they are so firmly sequestered in their own homogenous cultures and communities. For much of my life, it seemed that those who didn't know any Asians personally and only saw them on TV and movies would think that no Asians had been born in this country. I'm still hoping that Asians will someday receive the designation of "cool minority" that blacks, Latinos and gays have been anointed by pop culture, but we've been passed over enough that I won't hold my breath. I wish Asians in lead roles were so common that I didn't have to be excited about them, but that's just where we are.
Instead of a typical superhero story, the Green Hornet is essentially a buddy/odd-couple film about the friendship and rivalry that develops between the immature, somewhat clueless Reid and the intelligent, talented Kato as Reid baselessly declares himself the hero and relegates Kato to sidekick status. The other source of tension is over which of the duo will win Lenore's affections. An Asian actor getting equal screen time with an established white star in an American film is rare enough (with the exception of Jackie Chan's Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon franchises), but an Asian man as a possible romantic lead with a white woman is practically unheard of. In over 30 years of moviewatching, I can only think of three American studio films where an Asian actor kisses a non-Asian actress -- Dragon: the Bruce Lee Story, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, and the Spy Next Door (which was Chan's first onscreen kiss). Even action films that would normally have a romance slapped onto them like the Replacement Killers with Chow Yun Fat and Mira Sorvino or Romeo Must Die with Jet Li and Aaliyah avoided it.
For those who've never felt it, it's difficult to explain why it means so much for underrepresented groups to see positive depictions of those like them in popular culture. In the short-lived the Green Hornet television series of the 1960s, Bruce Lee played Kato in a performance that quickly outshone his co-star Van Williams in the show's titular role and began Lee's journey to international stardom. The Green Hornet, which was called the Kato Show in Lee's native Hong Kong, gave Asian Americans something they could point to with pride to show America that Asians aren't the villains, perverts, enemy soldiers or servants that they'd been characterized as in popular culture, but could be ass-kicking American superheroes worthy of respect.
While the Green Hornet isn't going to usher in 2011 as the year of the Asian, it's certainly a good start to the year, if only because the Green Hornet is a funny, unconventional take on the superhero genre and a seriously good time at the movies. But for Asian Americans, I imagine it will represent significantly more than that.
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