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Movies: The Green Hornet ***

With origins in a 30s Detroit radio show, The Green Hornet is among the very oldest superheroes, and a forerunner of the Batman character. Over the years there have been Green Hornet comic books, a 60s TV series and several 40s films.

An idea for a movie update has been in the works for almost 20 years, and at one point George Clooney was signed up to play the caped hero. Since then things have taken a different turn, and while just about the only thing Mr Clooney and Seth Rogen have in common is that they're both human, it's the comic actor who plays the Hornet in this lively Michel Gondry film.

Rogen is Britt Reid, the wastrel son of a wealthy but remote Los Angeles newspaper editor, James Reid (Tom Wilkinson). While his father works all the hours that God sends, Britt still lives at home and spends most of his time partying and impressing young woman by pretending that his father's house is his own. When Reid Senior dies suddenly, however, Britt is thrown into the glare of the public spotlight as he inherits his dad's media empire. In this the air-headed boy has zero interest, but he finds his father's mysterious mechanic Kato (Jay Chou) far more engaging.

Kato brews great coffee and is also something of a genius when it comes to making gadgets and customising cars. Kato and Britt share a mild dislike of the late James Reid, whom they agree was "a bit of a dick". And after an evening of drinking, they decide it would be an amusing jape to cut the head off a statue of the newspaper man that's recently been unveiled. While they're doing this they see a couple being set upon by a street gang, and while Brett talks tough, Kato (a martial arts experts) knocks seven bells out of them.

Afterwards they decide that crime-fighting is fun and come up with the idea of a masked character who will sort out LA's gang problems. The Green Hornet name is coined and Britt uses his newspaper to promote the legend. The difference with the Hornet is that everyone thinks he's a baddie, which will in theory make it easier for him to get to the big crime bosses. But it also makes him and his nameless sidekick targets for rivals, chief among them an insane Russian gangster called Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz).

As the presence of Seth Rogen should indicate, The Green Hornet is a superhero film with its tongue firmly planted in its cheek. It misses no opportunity to go for the cheap laugh, and succeeds admirably on a number of occasions. Cameron Diaz co-stars as Britt Reid's handsome secretary who turns out to have more brains than her boss and Kato put together, and James Franco has a brief but very amusing cameo as a verbose criminal. But in combining the genres of superhero yarn and gross-out comedy, The Green Hornet almost inevitably falls between two stools.

Some jingoistic British critics have pointed out that Gondry's film seems tame and derivative compared to last year's Kick-Ass, which was co-written by Jonathan Ross's wife, Jane Goldman. But while mildly original in some respects, that film was wildly overrated and shared many of this one's shortcomings. Even the most grown-up viewer can't help getting drawn in by a superhero story, and when this is constantly undermined by puerile humour the result can be frustrating.

With The Green Hornet, the biggest problem is the casting of Seth Rogen (who co-wrote the script) in the principal role. Mildly effective in gross-out comedies, he is, to put it mildly, a one-note actor, and in a film that requires occasional forays into drama his shuffling clowning proves woefully inadequate.

Michel Gondry doesn't always make sense of his action sequences either, but, that said, The Green Hornet is pretty entertaining for the most part and has enough genuinely funny moments to make it more than bearable.

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