By Dr. Craig D. Reid
Being a pal of Robert Lee (Bruce Lee’s brother), a well known martial arts film expert (based on fan and critic reactions to my recently released book The Ultimate Guide to the Martial Arts Movies of the 1970s) and a fight choreographer in the Chinese kung fu film industry and Hollywood since 1979, I was already expecting the film and Jay Chou’s Kato in The Green Hornet, the role made famous by Bruce Lee, to be like a swarm of mosquitoes…to really suck.
I am shocked and happy to admit that I was wrong. In fact, Green Hornet was by far a more superior and entertaining film that another recent remake….Tron: Legacy.
To old school martial artists the ABC TV show The Green Hornet (1966-67) was our introduction to the most influential martial artist and martial arts film star of all time Bruce Lee in his buzz-inducing role as Kato, valet to daytime newspaper publisher Britt Reid (played by Van Williams) and chauffer/bodyguard/enforcer to Reid’s nighttime alter ego The Green Hornet.
After a decade of rumors flying around as to who would be the next Kato — Brandon Lee, Philip Rhee, Jason Scott Lee, Jet Li, Mark Dacascos and Stephen Chow — the spirit of Bruce Lee’s TV alter ego has finally found a successor in Taiwanese actor Jay Chou as the latest Kato incarnate in the Michel Gondry directed The Green Hornet, which also stars Seth Rogen as the “bug the criminals” Green Hornet.
In an effort to distance Chou away from Lee’s Kato, Gondry decided to take the Kato character in a completely different direction suggesting that maybe Kato shouldn’t be a martial artist but a street fighter. Then he went in another direction wanting Kato to be awkward yet he’d still win the fights with no martial arts background. Then it went full circle and came back to Kato being a martial artist and making him more of a streetfighter.
In a strange sense it makes sense because since there are lots Bruce Lee and Green Hornet fans around then the expectation from fans would be different. If Kato is supposed to be a full-blown martial artist, then he’d best be better than Lee or it would disappoint the fans. But if Kato is more “streety,” fans might not have such a high expectation.
But ultimately no matter what direction they took, the comparison would always be made, thus it was good decision to keeping Kato a marital artist. In actuality the fights were very simple and it was the special effects that were truly the clout of even the martial arts action. Step in, “Kato Vision,” which on paper must have seemed a wee bit crazy, but strangely enough it worked.
For those that came in late, the masked superhero Green Hornet was created for radio by the same duo that in 1933 concocted the radio show The Lone Ranger, George W. Trendle and Fran Striker. Since then the Green Hornet, with is trusty sidekick Kato have appeared in two film serials (starring Keye Luke as Kato) during the 1940s, a ton of comic book series and of course the expensive 1966-67 TV show, which was originally supposed to be 30 episodes but was cancelled after 26 episodes. And of course Kato appeared in three episodes of ABC’s highly popular Batman (1966-1968) TV series.
On the original Green Hornet radio show (initially called The Hornet), Britt Reid was a newspaper publisher by day and the vigilante Green Hornet at night, who with his Japanese valet Kato would “hunt down public enemies that even the G-Men cannot reach.” It turned out that FBI Bureau chief, J. Edgar Hoover had problems with this line and so the show changed their mission to “hunting down public enemies who try to destroy America.”
After their vigilante-ism made them outlaws, Kato and Green Hornet were able to use their criminal label to weasel their way into major racketeers’ hideouts and ferret out those dirty rats and deliver them to the police like animals in a cage.
In response to the growing evil Japanese empire, by 1939 Kato became Filipino and then was Korean for the two 1940’s serials. Then of course since Bruce Lee’s influence, Kato became Chinese. The Flight of the Bumble Bee theme music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov to Kato and the Green Hornet is now just as inseparably associated with the show as the “March of the Swiss Soldiers” music shtick from the finale of Gioachino Rossini’s William Tell Overture is tightly melded to The Lone Ranger.
Speaking of the Lone Ranger, Britt Reid was the Lone Ranger’s great-nephew. It’s also interesting to note that both of these iconic radio shows created in the 1930s had minority sidekicks who on many levels were equals with their Caucasian counterparts.
The latest Green Hornet rendition is a 3D action-comedy where Britt (Rogen) is the son of LA’s most prominent and respected media magnate and happily maintains a directionless, party existance, until his father mysteriously dies, leaving Britt vast media empire. Striking an unlikely friendship with one of his father’s more industrious and inventive employees, Kato (Chou), they see their chance to do something meaningful for the first time in their lives: fight crime. To get close to the criminals, they come up with the perfect cover: they’ll pose as criminals.
To protect the law by breaking it, they become the vigilantes Kato and the Green Hornet. Through ingenuity and skill, Kato builds the ultimate hi-tech retro weapon, Black Beauty, an indestructible car that is equal parts firepower and horsepower. Rolling in this mobile fortress and striking the bad guys with Kato’s clever gadgets, the crime fighters quickly make a name for themselves, and with the help of Britt’s secretary, Lenore Case (Cameron Diaz), they hunt down LA’s gritty underworld leader Benjamin Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz). But Chudnofsky plans to swat them down.
As a kid, whenever I attacked a hornet with a fly swatter, it survived the swats and attacked with more over-buzz furor. Yet the sting of this film’s furor was actually the humor, the action sequences and although not many, the evenly paced out martial arts fight sequences, which were choreographed by one of Brandon Lee’s (Bruce’s son) former stunt doubles Jeff Imada. He did a jolly good job making Chou nothing like Lee, and that was good choice.
Incidentally Bruce Lee was the first Asian actor to be on the cover of TV Guide, November 29, 1966.