Batman Forever (1995)
by Steve Habrat
After Tim Burton took Batman to the darkest depths of evil’s soul in 1992’s Batman Returns, Warner Bros. wanted to make the Batman franchise friendlier to families all over America (No death to children here!). With Burton out of the director’s chair and wearing the producer’s hat, Joel Schumacher steps in to brighten the mood, yanking the brooding Batman out of the shadows and tossing him head first into a world of neon lights and rubber nipples on the Batsuit. Schumacher’s Batman Forever, the third installment in the franchise, was without question the grandest Batman film to date. It sprints all over this art deco Gotham City that looks more like a nightclub than an actual metropolis. Some of the dark tones of the original two films remain loosely in tact and newcomer Val Kilmer, who steps in for Michael Keaton, refuses to quit brooding as Bruce Wayne, but the film welcomes in two campy villains, an annoying sidekick, and a homoerotic feel that turns Batman and his antagonists into glam rock drag queens with no purpose or direction. Completely reversing the plot to create a darker Batman, Schumacher takes things back to the campy 60’s television series that starred Adam West as a much more cartoonish version of the Dark Knight and in the process, he horrifies Batfans everywhere.
Batman Forever begins with the dreaded Harvey Dent/Two-Face (Played by Tommy Lee Jones), the former do-gooder D.A. of Gotham City, terrorizing the good citizens of the sprawling city. He blames Batman (Played by Val Kilmer) for not intervening in a courtroom accident that left half of his face horribly scarred. Two-Face soon finds an ally in the rubbery terrorist Edward Nygma/The Riddler (Played by Jim Carrey), a disgruntled former employee of Wayne Enterprises who is out to stick it to his idol, Bruce Wayne. The Riddler devises a way to suck the secrets out of the heads of the helpless citizens of Gotham, which allows him to get inside Batman’s mind and figure out his true identity. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne has assumed responsibility for the young Dick Grayson (Played by Chris O’Donnell), who watched helplessly as his parents were murdered by the bloodthirsty Two-Face. As Dick spends more and more time in Wayne Manor, he begins to suspect that Wayne is hiding something and he is determined to find out what that secret is. As The Riddler and Two-Face close in on the city, Bruce Wayne begins to grapple with his true identity, leading him to consider hanging up the cape for good.
In the past, I have criticized Burton’s Batman films for not exploring the psychology of Bruce Wayne and what drives him to dress up like a giant bat. Schumacher’s Batman Forever attempts to wrap its head around why Bruce does this and while I admire the effort, it is shoddy and half-hearted. Bruce is urged by love interest Dr. Chase Meridian (Played by Nicole Kidman) to face down his demons, which leads to a handful of moody flashbacks that are ripe with the darkness of the first two films. Unfortunately, a good majority of this side plot was removed from Batman Forever due to the studio’s fear of venturing back into the dark side of Batman. This is just one of the missed opportunities in Batman Forever. There are tons of moments that appear to be going in the right direction but are thrown off by studio interference. Many are quick to place ALL the blame on Schumacher, labeling him the only person responsible for Batman crumbling to glittery ash, but I think Warner Bros. also played a part in this monstrosity. I was always hesitant to put all of the blame on him because you will catch glimpses of the film that Schumacher wanted to make. There are some bleak touches to be found if you are willing to look closely, something that saves Batman Forever from being a total turd.
Another positive that Batman Forever has working in its favor is the casting of Val Kilmer as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Kilmer continues to play Wayne with a straight face, refusing to stop and wink at the audience even when Schumacher slaps nipples on his armor. When he puts on the Batsuit, Kilmer communicates in a whisper that does seem perfect for a guy dressing up like a giant bat, which softens the blow of campy lines of dialogue like, “I’ll get drive-thru.” Things really hit rock bottom for Kilmer when he is forced to team up with O’Donnell’s Robin, who does nothing to lift the creeping veil of camp that is slowly draping over the film. Schumacher also hints at a homosexual spark between the two crime fighters, which would be okay if the previous two films had hinted that Bruce grapples with his sexuality but that isn’t the case here. Kilmer is forced to morph the brooding hero, who has had feelings for Vicki Vale and Selina Kyle in the past, into a bisexual with an identity crisis. It’s a bizarre touch to throw into the series in the third quarter but Kilmer keeps a cool head with the murky twist.
To make things worse for Batman Forever, O’Donnell has no clue how to approach the Boy Wonder. At times, he wants to be just as brooding and dark as Kilmer’s Bruce Wayne and at others, he wants to be a party-boy rebel without a real cause. I had mixed feelings about his character but he really rubbed me the wrong way when he jacked the Batmobile and takes it out for a joyride. Personally, I could have done without the inclusion of Robin, as I personally have never been a huge fan of the character. Then we have the two villains, both who lift the buffoonery of Nicholson’s Joker but forget the measured menace that made his character so unforgettable. When Carrey isn’t on the screen with him, Jones actually knows how to handle his split-personality wacko but whenever the question-mark-clad Carrey enters the scene, the two seem like they are in a contest to see who can out-camp the other. Carrey wins the contest and turns the Riddler into a heavily caffeinated version of the Joker who loves one-liners and loves light-up jackets. Jones and Carrey do an admirable job with the material they are given, but I wish they weren’t asked to act like they are two giddy teenagers. Matching Kilmer’s somber tone is Nicole Kidman’s sexy psychologist (a fitting love interest for this film), who is here to coax the demons out of Wayne. Also back is Michael Gough as the faithful butler Alfred, who contributes another quality performance, and Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon, who once again has absolutely nothing to do with his iconic character.
As I stated earlier, Batman Forever was the biggest Batman film at the time and Schumacher loads it with enough action to live up to that reputation. The film does have some marvelous sets even if they do turn Batman Forever into a gigantic neon dance club. The fight scenes lack the brutality of Batman and Batman Returns, at times seeming like the characters are dance fighting (It wouldn’t surprise me if they were) rather than actually fighting for their lives. Schumacher and his crew hope to overwhelm us with action and eye candy so that we won’t notice the fact that the film basically has no plot and they almost succeed. Luckily, Kilmer is a nice fit for Batman and it is a shame he didn’t stick around to elaborate on his performance, but I can’t say I blame him for abandoning the character when the studio is more interested in selling toys rather than making something coherent. Overall, Batman Forever is a regressive film that appeals more to kids than it does to the adult viewers looking for something substantial and weighty. Oh well, at least there wasn’t any “Wham” or “Pow” to speak of, which was a relief for a film that hits the ground with a campy joke about Batman stopping for drive-thru.
Batman Forever is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
The Green Hornet (2011)
by Steve Habrat
I’ll admit that I was itching to see The Green Hornet the second I heard the buzz (pun intended) about it. I have vague memories of catching the short lived 1966 television series with martial arts legend Bruce Lee as the ass kicking sidekick Kato and Van Williams as the Green Hornet himself Britt Reid. I remember that old theme that still every once and a great while makes its way into pop-culture, whether it is sampled in rap songs or Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. I remember those masked avengers riding around in their tricked out Black Beauty. In fact, I think I was drawn to it because of the similarities to Batman. They both feature a masked millionaire and his sidekick who has come from nothing. They ride around in cool cars. They fight crime in really cool outfits (Although, if GQ ever did a best-dressed superhero list, I think the Green Hornet and Kato may take it from the Dark Knight and the Boy Wonder.). But mostly, they were vigilantes that operated outside of the law. And it was precisely the anti-hero set up that lured me in. Hell, Val Williams and Bruce Lee even had cameos in the popular Adam West Batman television show. While I’m too young to be overly familiar with where the Green Hornet got his start, which was a radio show from the 1930s, I can still hold on to the hope that the film has had some form of respect for him and stayed true to his origins.
Enter the writing team of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who also penned the hilarious coming of age story Superbad and whimsical director Michel Gondry, of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Science of Sleep fame. Intrigued yet? You should be. Even if you are unfamiliar with the Green Hornet and Kato, there is still the promise of some truly unique visuals and some stinging humor right? You bet there is, and there is also some bone crunching action, lively car chases, eccentric villains, smoking hot secretaries, really cool cars, and a painfully hilarious cameo from James Franco. Somewhere in there, there’s the plot of playboy Britt Reid (Played by Rogen), the–What else?–slacker son of a newspaper publisher who takes over The Daily Sentinel in the wake of his father’s mysterious death. On the seedier side of town, a murderous villain Chudnofsky (Played by the brilliant Oscar winner Christoph Waltz), who looks like a super villain from the seventies, is slowly trying to control all the crime in gangland Los Angeles. The day after his father’s funeral, Britt wakes up to his morning coffee and to his horror, his coffee is dreadful. Plus, it lacks the elegant and decorative leaf that usually adorns the top. Britt storms through the estate looking for the person who usually makes his morning coffee. That person, he discovers, is Kato (Played by a seriously good Jay Chou), who is also his father’s mechanic. After a night of drunken shenanigans, Britt and Kato decide they are going to become masked vigilantes and take on crime throughout the city. Then the Looney Tunes meets 300 style action kicks into high gear.
By this point, be it from reading what I have described to you or seeing the energetic trailers, you know if this is the type of film for you. If you’re a fan of Rogen’s haw-haw stoner humor or a superhero aficionado, you were probably already in line and have already seen The Green Hornet. If you’re not a fan of either, I can’t really do much to convince you to see it. I suffer from my own fanboy demons, so naturally I jumped at the opportunity to see it opening weekend. Now, I’ll also admit I walked out of the theater with a big grin slapped across my face. The film is cartoonish mayhem at it’s absolute finest. And Gondry can’t resist spicing the film up with his trademark surreal flare. The action scenes are inspired, resembling something out of a video game (Kato hones in on all of the baddies weapons that they are wielding). Rogen never snaps out of his along-for-the-ride shtick and some will find that a hard hurdle to jump over. But it’s Chou’s Kato who’s the real star of the film and even through broken English; you can’t help but love him. Whether he is kicking and punching through countless hoards of Chudnofsky’s henchmen or whipping up countless Black Beauties, Chou is always entrancing. And what about Oscar winner Waltz? Well he seems to be lapping up his new career in Hollywood with demented merriment. I’ll tell you this much about his character, just wait until the climatic showdown. He’ll have you laughing and gripping the edge of your seat. And we can’t forget to mention Cameron Diaz, who seemed to be a last minute addition to make the fanboys drool. She isn’t given much to do but fill Reid and Kato in on some of the criminal activity that is taking place in LA. And how does Rogen fare as a superhero? He pulls it off just fine, even if Chou is the real action star here. Rogen mostly falls back on spewing out silly one-liners and hiding behind Kato. Don’t let that fool you, as Rogen does get his chance to play the hero in a show stopping fight scene at the climax. I’ll confess that it is welcome in a genre that has become dominated by brooding heroes who take themselves a little too seriously. But then again, it’s what we have pushed for isn’t it? Heroes that are more emotionally complex, solemn, and that operate within the world we are familiar with. But The Green Hornet’s main objective is to throw all of that out the window and invite us to just have a campy good time.
Every party has its moments where the fun lags and The Green Hornet does suffer from a few lagging moments. The plot of the film is uneven at points and the more twists that they try to throw into the mix, the more cluttered the plot actually becomes. The film works better when it stays on the straight and narrow path. The entire movie is played up like a psychedelic madcap comedy and trying to give it more depth than it deserves slightly spoils the fun. The opening of the film doesn’t provide much of a back-story to the relationship between Reid and his father. They simply don’t get along and Reid’s father doesn’t understand him. That’s about all we get we are supposed to just accept it. The film is just under the two-hour mark and it leaves us asking why they didn’t go another ten minutes and make their troubled relationship a little bit meatier. And the 3D? It reeks of an afterthought and I will say that it’s the first 3D movie that actually began to bother my eyes.
Through it all, The Green Hornet works because it seems like everyone in it is having a blast. I had as much fun watching it, as I’m sure they did making it. The fact of the matter is that the Green Hornet is a third string superhero. He always has been and will continue to be. His film does not rank among the best of the superhero genre and I don’t think anyone under the sun expected it to run with Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight, Kick-Ass, Iron Man, or Watchmen. It also certainly does not rank with the worst of them (I’m referring to you Fantastic Four, Ghost Rider, Punisher and Wolverine!). I went in with high hopes but, due to some of the seething reviews, I had my doubts. I emerged smiling and completely satisfied. Plus, in these early months of the year where Hollywood dumps all of its crap, don’t expect much in the way of solid entertainment anytime soon. The Green Hornet is the best we will get for a while and after sitting through all the serious award contenders, it was utterly refreshing. The Green Hornet is pure fanboy euphoria. Grade: B
The Green Hornet is now available on Blu-ray, 3D Blu-ray, and DVD.