When Warner Bros. first announced its plans to make Green Lantern its next big comic book franchise, few people would have put Martin Campbell at the top of a ‘let’s get him to direct it’ list. Well, me, for one. Leaf through Campbell’s back catalogue and the very thing that Green Lantern would seem to demand – CGI flourishes, flights of fancy, big colours and stuff – are suspiciously light on the ground. When Campbell does action, he does action for real. And when he relies on CGI, we get Vertical Limit.
So, how would he deal with purple aliens, mad scientists and yellow fear swallowing baddies? Uh, pretty well, as it turns out. Campbell’s successful re-booting of the James Bond franchise in Casino Royale may just have been the thing that helped greenlight Hal Jordan and his inter-galactic friends. He brings the same ‘less frills, more thrills’ approach to bear here.
That’s not to say Green Lantern is in the same league as either of his Bond adventures. It has far too much going on, too little time to do it, and is not quite sure what it wants to be a lot of that time. A big, bright kids movie, a bruising action film, a tongue-in-cheek superhero adventure. They’re all in here, vying for your attention.
But amidst all that, it is fun, something which Jerry Bruckheimer seems to have left off his own ‘what should we put in the latest Pirates Of The Caribbean’ list. And Campbell’s not a man to hang around. He whips through the story’s universe-sweeping set-up like it’s a pre-credits Bond sequence, giving just enough to keep us interested. These green-wearing dudes are the nice guys, this big yellow thing is bad, Ryan Reynolds is cocky but good for it, and Blake Lively is never going to look anything but a movie star, even when she’s flying a fighter jet at Mach speed.
Green Lantern moves fast, getting to the main attraction of a hero in a suit in half the time it took Sam Raimi to in Spider-Man. It leaves in its wake some clunky moments of family melodrama, an underused display of Reynolds’ razor sharp comic timing and beautifully dry delivery (his retort to one character’s clichéd “Watch your back” is priceless), and a flashback scene that doesn’t quite work.
But when it gets to the big green show, Campbell shows his true worth. ‘A knife fight in a phone box’ is apparently how he sold Reynolds on his vision for the film, and he comes close to that here, often with the simplest of touches. A grounded fight outside a bar carries a mighty punch, long before a big, green CGI punch comes rolling in.
Green Lantern‘s action scenes don’t have the jaw-dropping, heart-in-mouth breathlessness of Casino Royale, but they do share the simple thrill of The Mask Of Zorro‘s. Campbell’s brought in his go-to editor, Stuart Baird, (a man whose CV reads like a Christmas list of the greatest action films ever made), and the two bring a crunching realism to the shimmering green on display.
Those early trailers don’t tell the entire story. Caught in snippets, the action beats felt weightless and looked just a little bit silly. But Campbell makes the whole better than the parts, each set piece a satisfying melee of the ridiculous and the real. Even a scene featuring a helicopter sprouting wheels and driving down a giant green racetrack feels kind of right. Well, kind of.
Sometimes, the ridiculous wins out and Green Lantern veers dangerously close to a Joel Schumacher-era Batman film, with big elaborate sets that look exactly that. There’s one that leaves the actors stranded in what looks like the climactic scene from Howard The Duck, with only a prop left over from Stargate to keep them company. Tim Robbins plays it far too hammy as a slimy senator, Peter Sarsgaard only slightly less so as a mad scientist (although there’s really only one way you can go with that: mad, but clever). But that’s okay. They’re not the main draw here.
Campbell is in such a rush to get to the good stuff (big green effects!) that he doesn’t give us nearly enough of the really good stuff, Reynolds and Lively. She’s straight-jacketed by her Carol Ferris being too much of a straight foil to Reynolds’ wisecracking Hal Jordan, yet even that can’t stop them being a winning couple.
Their big balcony scene, that one that every superhero film has, where the girl gets rescued by the hero she knows but doesn’t know she knows, is the real standout in Green Lantern. It shines brighter than any of the dazzling effects on show, funny and knowing and perfectly played (perhaps not surprising, when you consider co-writer/producer, Greg Berlanti, honed his skills at the Dawson’s Creek school of movie references).
If the already written sequel does come to fruition (and it’s just about worth staying for the end credits to catch the setup for this), then we need to have more of those really good bits, please. Lots more.