The Incredible Hulk (2008) / Action-Sci Fi
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence, frightening images, and some suggestive content
Running time: 114 min
Cast: Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, William Hurt, Tim Roth, Tim Blake Nelson, Ty Burrell
Cameo: Lou Ferrigno, Stan Lee, Robert Downey Jr.
Director: Louis Leterrier
Screenplay: Zak Penn, Edward Harrison (aka Edward Norton) (based on the comic book created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby)
The Incredible Hulk is neither an outright sequel to the 2003 Ang Lee snoozefest, Hulk, nor an outright reboot. In fact, the screenwriters, including star Edward Norton (The Painted Veil, The Illusionist), who would rewrite entire scenes daily on the set, cleverly sidesteps the whole notion of giving a lengthy origin sequence that would surely be tedious to have to go through again for those who are familiar. Instead, the military experimentation that sees scientist Dr. Bruce Banner change from unassuming man to giant green monster when unable to control his emotions is left to images during the opening sequence and references injected during conversations later in the film. It's one of the more refreshing aspects of this decidedly action-oriented film that comes the closest yet to doing Marvel character's popular character right.
We start the film with a familiar premise, especially for those who've seen the "Incredible Hulk" TV series from the late 1970s, with Bruce Banner hiding out from an arm of the the US Army, led by General Ross (Hurt, Vantage Point), father to Banner's old flame, Betty (Tyler, Reign Over Me). Banner is currently in Brazil working in a beverage bottling plant, but a mishap occurs that triggers his whereabouts back home, sending the the big guns out to tranq him. Despite his meditation exercises that have given him about a half year without incident, the ensuing chase finally pushes him over the edge into the green goliath, impervious to bullets with strength as yet beyond fathom. Escape comes for the doctor, who must make it back home to meet his scientist contact with the potential cure to his affliction, but that also means he's back in the lion's den of US military presence. Though nothing has been able to stop Banner in Hulk mode yet, the Army has a plan to take him down, with a similar experiment on one of their own, Emil Blonsky (Roth, Even Money), who is injected with a serum to give him super soldier powers to make him more than a man, and more than a match for the green, grumpy giant.
Replacing the more contemplative Ang Lee as director is Louis Leterrier, best known as the one who crafted the high-octane actioners Transporter 2 and Unleashed. To say he's working with his best script isn't saying much, or that it's his best film. He may not be the most patient filmmaker when it comes to shooting scenes with any amount of dialogue, but he does know how to craft an action sequence. A foot chase through a favela in Brazil sizzles with excitement, as do later scenes in a rural park space and a finale in the streets of Harlem.
While the action is solid, alas, there is the in-between stuff to contend with, the plot and dialogue, and these are the moments that keep The Incredible Hulk in the realm of just-barely-passable fare. With a credible thespian like Edward Norton at the core, the character nuance needed for Bruce Banner is secure, though still a little skimpy in terms of development. Liv Tyler is fine as Betty Ross, though too often utilized merely as as a damsel in distress plot point. Hulk actually does get to fight one of his comic book arch enemies in The Abomination late in the film (Comic fans will also enjoy seeing the seeds planted for future nemeses The Leader and Doc Samson). Good actors like Tim Roth and William Hurt aren't exactly my choice for Blonsky and General Ross, but they do lend their credible names I suppose. This is the second film in a row whereby Roth plays an aging man who gets "re-youthed", coming after the artsy Francis Ford Coppola flick, Youth Without Youth.
Though the story is dour and, as it nears the end, a bit grotesque, there are some choice bits of comic relief that definitely will hit home for Hulk fans. Stan Lee gets a good cameo, as does former TV Hulk Lou Ferrigno, continuing his role from Hulk as a security guard. Ferrigno is credited as having provided the voice of the Hulk, though if that's the case, it is obviously enhanced. He has a couple of lines of fairly unintelligible dialogue in the film, and one wishes someone else could have dubbed his live-action character, a la Hercules. The late Bill Bixby, who played David Banner on TV (the filmmakers make reference to "David Banner" as David B., one of Bruce's assumed aliases) even makes an appearance, glimpsed briefly on a rerun of "The Courtship of Eddie's Father". Such catchphrases as "You wouldn't like me when I'm angry", "Hulk Smash!" and even the infamous old school comic book purple pants make their appearance. While we are on the pants subject, this may be the first instance I can recall a reason why Hulk manages to keep on his pants when everything else is ripped off (modest Banner buys the largest, stretchiest pants he can find -- tired of being stranded in the middle of nowhere without clothing).
The CGI can be a bit spotty, and though rendered with a high amount of detail, the Hulk is still an obvious character of artifice. However, given the limitations of the current state of CGI, he's about as good as he could look, I suppose. One thing I didn't care for is the roar they give to the Hulk, as he bellows a fierce, guttural shriek that looks and sounds like those CGI humanoid creatures from I Am Legend. The Hulk is much less vocal than his print counterpart, but I suppose in the middle of a berserker rage, it's not the time to engage in heavy conversation. The environs often look fake as well, such as one scene where Hulk takes down a helicopter -- perhaps too much CGI on the screen is hard to process in great detail?
Despite substantial flaws, The Incredible Hulk ultimately deserves a recommendation, with reservations, for delivering exactly what Hulk fans want and expect from their favorite superhero. Banner gets his chance to prove a hero, Hulk smashes things, and when action is called for, the stops are always pulled out to amaze with spectacular wreckage. The first half of set-up is better than the last half of typical comic book action, and yet, even if interest wanes as the story develops, we're left at the end of the film actually hoping we can see something more (Robert Downey Jr,'s cameo as Tony Stark may have something to do with it), and perhaps better, with these same actors -- something we didn't feel at the end of the Ang Lee version. The Incredible Hulk may not be an unequivocal smash, but Hulk does do a lot of smashing. In the world of Hulk, that's a good thing.
-- Followed by The Avengers (2012)
©2008 Vince Leo