The Incredible Hulk

Rhythm & Hues/Universal Studios and Marvel Studios
Louis Leterrier/United States 2008

We may never know what drove Ang Lee – identified with artistic achievements such as Eat Drink Man Woman, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Sense and Sensibility and Brokeback Mountain – to helm the 2003 blockbuster Hulk. But whatever his reasons, the film was a sprawling critical and popular disappointment, interested more in cerebral psychobabble than rip-snorting action. Marvel Studios, flush from their colossal success with Iron Man, will not make the same mistake twice.

Building on the thematic elements that made the 1970s TV series a hit, The Incredible Hulk is, in essence, a chase film (think The Fugitive). After a ballistic fast montage embedded in the credits sequence showing how Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) was doused with gamma radiation and became the Hulk (and you thought you had inner demons!), we find our walking time bomb hiding out in the sprawling Rio de Janeiro slums. Having left behind everything he loves – especially girlfriend Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) – Bruce spends his days working at a bottling plant. His nights are devoted to researching a cure for his condition and taking yoga classes to control his volatile emotions. Bruce’s only ally is Dr. Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson), a scientist in New York City who claims to have discovered an antidote.

Every few months, Betty’s father – the warmongering General Ross (William Hurt) – who wants to dissect Bruce so that he can replicate his powers for military use, catches up and forces the beleaguered scientist to once again go on the lam. Ross enlists Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), a British Special Forces officer to join his elite team in tracking Bruce down. Hopelessly outmatched in every confrontation, Blonsky has himself injected with some of the same radioactive isotopes that gave rise to the Hulk, and in the process becomes the nightmarish beast, The Abomination. A titanic Harlem showdown can’t be far off.

French director Louis Leterrier (the Transporter films) has made a crowd-pleaser, to be sure. Vapid character development and a pedestrian script is saved by roller-coaster action and mostly dazzling CGI. The effects are not always convincing but they almost always work. Some of the nicest moments are not when the Hulk is smashing everything around him, but when he cradles Betty Ross’ limp body in his gigantic arms, an image surely meant to evoke King Kong. Sadly, the inclusion of The Abomination takes the awe-inspiring emphasis off the Hulk. The final explosive confrontation left me unsatisfied. So many movies these days conclude in such a way that leaves plenty of room for a sequel. However, in doing so, they rob themselves of the sort of closure that allows a film to stand on its own.

Norton is about as unlikely a superhero as Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man) or Michael Keaton (1989’s Batman). Yet, like those men, he pulls it off. Even more unlikely is oft-foppish Roth as an elite super-soldier. But here too, Roth is convincing. Tyler is an actress skilled at conveying inconsolable empathy with her large, doe-like eyes and Leterrier makes the most of this talent in numerous close-ups. Hurt, one of this country’s greatest actors, is completely wasted, relegated to barking staccato orders for an hour and a half. And, as is now par for the course in superhero movies, watch for several inspired cameos.

The Hulk is my least favorite superhero. Sure, raw, brute strength is exciting, but he lacks the staying power of a more intellectually compelling hero. The Incredible Hulk, in its zeal not to repeat the sins of the 2003 version, barely addresses Bruce’s existential angst, trading intelligence and wit for pure sinew and muscle. Rumors persist that Norton was unsatisfied with the final cut and that the film’s deeper elements now litter the cutting room floor.

The Incredible Hulk is not going to have Iron Man’s success (like the Energizer Bunny, that film just keeps going and going …) but it is a diverting enough popcorn flick and sure to make Ang Lee green with envy.

© 2008 Brandon Fibbs. All rights reserved.

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