The Green Hornet

The new Green Hornet movie came out this weekend, and it’s… just okay? Something like that. Again, not reviewing this as a film critic as much as a legal critic, and it’s surprising how much this movie gets both right and wrong, sometimes on the very same issue. This time we’re going to focus mostly on two legal issues which explicitly show up in the film: sexual harassment in the workplace and a peculiar little wrinkle related to self-defense.

As always, spoilers follow.

I. Sexual Harassment

Brit Reid is an ass. When Lenore comes into his office the very first thing he does could easily form the basis of a viable sexual harassment lawsuit. Sexual harassment has been interpreted by the Supreme Court as being prohibited under 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (see Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 447 U.S. 57). Commenting on a prospective employee’s sexual attractiveness is a surefire way of getting your butt sued off. The movie eventually figures this out, but Lenore only raises the issue of sexual harassment after he has already fired her, something else for which she could sue. So whatever points the movie gets for raising the issue it loses for raising it so late. If you’re going to let your boss harass you when he hires you, while you’re working for him, and fire you on the basis of your gender, it seems a little late to raise the issue when he asks you to come back. The movie is set in the present day; this ain’t Mad Men. You can’t do stuff like that anymore.

II. Self-defense

At one point, basically the duo’s first real attempt at being the Green Hornet and Kato, the two drive Black Beauty to a drug corner and proceed to beat the crap out of the dealers. Fair enough. But things get a little out of hand, and Kato has to shoot one of the criminals to stop him from shooting Brit. The movie seems to pass this off as okay, either because the bad guys are, well, bad guys, but implicitly it seems that the idea is that because it was in self-defense, it’s legally okay too. The movie never seems to think that the two have committed any actual crimes (other than vandalism, which when it’s against your own property hardly counts).

But this is too simple an analysis. Self-defense is, if made out properly, a complete defense to a charge of homicide. But there are a couple of restrictions here. First, there’s the issue of proportional response. If someone punches you,  employing a deadly weapon–guns and knives are the traditional ones here–may be viewed as disproportionate, which would defeat the defense. Even worse, self-defense cannot be raised if you’re the one who started the fight. This isn’t just limited to throwing the first punch either. “Fighting words” never justify an attack, but if the prosecution can prove that a defendant pleading self-defense deliberately provoked his assailant, it’s going to get a guilty verdict. So pissing off a bunch of drug dealers in order to get them to attack you so you can kill them? Yeah, that’s homicide.

III. Final word

The movie as a whole is, well, kind of a mess, and that isn’t terribly surprising given the mess it makes of the law. Then again, the final cup-check is pretty damn funny…

8 responses to “The Green Hornet

  1. Of course on Mythbusters all the superhero physics were all debunked. Second best episode ever (after the exploding cement mixer).

  2. “So pissing off a bunch of drug dealers in order to get them to attack you so you can kill them? Yeah, that’s homicide.” That is not a very clear statement. Homicide can mean either an unlawful killing or just one person killing another person, legally or not. A better choice of words would be “murder” or at least “unlawful” homicide.

  3. Wait, kill? I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I was under the impression that the Green Hornet and Kato use gas guns to put the bad guys to sleep?

    • This would count as one of the aforementioned “spoilers”: They hadn’t planned on it and used one of the dealers’ guns. The knockout gas does make a showing.

      • Hmm, would that constitute any sort of defense or mitigating circumstance to homicide, the fact they lacked any sort of lethal weapon being evidence they didn’t go into the situation planning deadly force? Or at least drop the degree of the charge? I admit (with my limited law knowledge) as described here the inability to declare self defense if you initiated the conflict seems kinda screwy; is there no recognition of responding to the other party escalating? If “fighting words” can constitute starting a fight, does that mean if I insult someone (to a degree that could provoke a reasonable person to attack me) and he pulls a gun I’m guilty of murder if I kill him to stop him from killing me? I just wonder how the law recognizes escalation in this context, especially since in the opposite situation (someone insults me, I kill them) I’d certainly be guilty of murder.

  4. Actually i would state about 50% of sexual harrisment charges happen after the person is fired, from my experience with labor law. There isn’t a requirement you currently work for the employer for it to stick. This goes true for most labor violations, for things like safety, minimum wage violations, etc.

    This has nothing to do with veracity of the claim. However sexual harrisment is hard thing to prove the economy is tough, a lot of people want to keep there job and a lot of them feel rightly that rocking the boat at your current job isn’t a good idea.

    After all sexual harrisment is typically phrased in the concept “I was afraid for my job”, more so then typically any kind of actual sexual contact-it has more to do with power dynamics then sex. If you loose your job, well then thats pretty good reason why that was well founded won’t it?

  5. I’d be interested to see the self-defense issue revisited in light of the recent Stand Your Ground laws/trials.

    • In theory, it doesn’t change at all. Stand your ground simply means you don’t have to flee if trouble starts. It doesn’t mean you are allowed to be the aggressor. If Green Hornet and Kato are determined to be the aggressors, self-defense goes out the window.

      Regarding a certain well publicized case in Florida, a lot of the debate and controversy is over who was actually the aggressor. That is, who started the fight (and what do we mean by “started”)? It is quite possible that even if you switch who had lived and who had died, we might still have seen an attempt at a “Stand your ground” defense. Whether it would be successful or not….

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