INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Jeff Imada Helps ‘Green Hornet’ Take Flight Off Camera

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By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON
(First published in
The Rafu Shimpo on December 23, 2010.)

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It’s been a long, long time in coming but Columbia Pictures’ “The Green Hornet” is finally arriving in theaters next month on Friday, Jan. 14.

I’ve been following its gestation over the years and some of the false starts included rumors that Eddie Murphy and George Clooney coveted the starring role. More recently, Hong Kong Chinese writer, actor and director Stephen Chow (“Kung Fu Hustle,” “Shaolin Soccer”) was going direct it and play the role of Kato, until that collapsed.

The popularity of the superhero/costumed adventurer genre, however, shows no sign of abating and “The Green Hornet” still had enough life in it to push it forward. Not bad for a property that began as a radio serial back in the 1930s and is only remembered today for the 1960s TV incarnation, not so much for the title character of Green Hornet (played by Van Williams) but thanks to the electric martial artistry of his sidekick, Kato, played by Bruce Lee. (There was also a cool car, the Black Beauty, which everyone who saw the TV series dug. A cool car is always good; just ask Batman.)

The conceit behind “The Green Hornet” in its various iterations in radio, film serials, comic books and the TV show was that newspaper publisher Britt Reid and his trusty valet Kato would fight crime at night as Green Hornet and Kato. (Why no one ever figured out the secret identity of Green Hornet through the common denominator of a dude named Kato is anyone’s guess.) And, even though Green Hornet was a crime fighter, he was perceived by the police as a bad guy, which gave him credibility among real criminals.

So, “The Green Hornet” is finally buzzing its way into theaters. It stars Canadian funnyman Seth Rogen (who also co-wrote it) and Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou and is directed by Frenchman (by way of England) Michel Gondry.

I suppose such an international pedigree is par for the course these days. Even Columbia Pictures has been owned by Sony Corp. for more than two decades now. So, is there an American in the group? Turns out there is, and his name is Jeff Imada.

“The Green Hornet” stars Canadian funnyman Seth Rogen and Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou.

I had a chance to chat briefly over the phone with the ever-busy Imada while he was on location in Louisiana working on “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn.”

While you may not know of the Inglewood, Calif.-born Imada, if you’ve watched any action movies or TV shows from the last 32 years — the amount of time he’s been in the business — you’ve seen his work as a stuntman, stunt double, stunt choreographer and fight stunt choreographer, his title in “Green Hornet.” He’s worked with some of the biggest names in the business, too: Mel Gibson (who Imada said was a “great guy” despite his recent troubles), Denzel Washington, Matt Damon and Forrest Whittaker to name a few. I jokingly told him that he’s been beaten up by some of the biggest names in show business. Referring to himself and some of his Asian American stuntman peers like his friend Al Leong, Imada laughed, “We’re always getting killed or beat up, and that’s generally what stunt guys are for.”

Since Imada has a few years on me, I figured correctly that he had watched and was inspired by TV’s 1960s “Green Hornet” when he was a kid, so I asked him what it felt like to now be working on the big-screen version as an adult. “It was pretty cool, actually, because I was a big ‘Green Hornet’ fan,” he said. “Everyone loved watching Bruce Lee on ‘The Green Hornet.’ So, it was pretty nice to be asked to work on the project by Seth Rogen.”

Not too shabby to be asked for personally by the movie’s star, but such is Imada’s reputation these days in Hollywood as the “go-to guy” for action and fight scene choreography, especially since the second and third Jason Bourne movies (“The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Bourne Ultimatum”) that gave Imada the canvas to concoct some breakthrough fight set pieces that were kinetic but not overchoreographed and managed to set a new standard for “realistic” fight scenes.

I’ve been acquainted with Imada over the years and when I recently reconnected with him, I was happy to learn that he is also the father of a daughter in the second grade, Kila. His connection to movies was an offshoot of his interest and pursuit of martial arts; I first saw his picture on the cover of a book he wrote years ago about balisong knives as a student of Bruce Lee protégé Dan Inosanto. Before veering off into the movies, however, Imada attended UCLA on a track studying medicine. I asked him if he had any regrets about not pursuing medicine and he said that he was “still interested in the healing modalities of Eastern and Western medicine” but was also pretty happy with what he is doing.

As for “The Green Hornet,” it’s actually a movie I’m interested in watching. I like Seth Rogen, having watched him since the early days of his acting career on TV’s “Freaks & Geeks” and his somewhat improbable rise to leading man.

Not having seen it, I still have to think that with Rogen’s involvement, “The Green Hornet” is going to have lots of laughs, which is probably a move in the right direction. After all, the 1960s “Batman” took a silly, camp approach and was far more popular than “The Green Hornet,” which played it straight—maybe too straight—and was canceled after a season. As a show that is dimly remembered, there is also a lot of license to make changes to the characters and setting. Also a plus is having Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz (“Inglourius Basterds”) playing the requisite bad guy.

Not only that, Rogen’s chunky pothead persona has been left behind, thanks to him slimming down to get into shape for this role. (I’m sure he’s still “treating his glaucoma,” however.) Imada characterized him as a “really nice guy, really smart and approachable.” That’s actually not a bad description for Imada, come to think of it.

Going forward in his career, Imada said he is interested in directing or producing a movie himself, if the right script or property came his way. In the meantime, though, he is in demand for his behind-the-camera talent in stunts and action choreography and will probably stay that way for the foreseeable future.

“It’s been a nice ride I’ve been on through the years,” Imada said, adding, “There’s no guarantees in this business, so once you finish a project you hope you’re going to get another project.” Somehow, I don’t think that’ll be a problem for him.

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

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(George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Past columns can be viewed at www.IntoTheNextStage.com. Copyright © 2010 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.)

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