The Incredible Hulk

The Incredible Hulk
Director: Louis Leterrier
Screenplay: Zak Penn and Edward Harrison (based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby)
Stars: Edward Norton (Bruce Banner), Liv Tyler (Betty Ross), Tim Roth (Emil Blonsky), Tim Blake Nelson (Samuel Sterns), Ty Burrell (Dr. Samson), William Hurt (Gen. Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross), Christina Cabot (Major Kathleen “Kat” Sparr), Peter Mensah (General Joe Greller), Lou Ferrigno (Voice of The Incredible Hulk / Security Guard)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2008
Country: U.S.
The Incredible Hulk
The Incredible Hulk“Let no potential franchise be wasted!” seems to be the mantra of Marvel Studios as it bravely (or foolishly) resurrects the not-so-jolly green giant in The Incredible Hulk. While technically a sequel to Ang Lee’s much-maligned Hulk (2003), which was too arty and psychological for the popcorn crowd and too violent and cartoonish for the arthouse crowd, it feels more like a series reboot given the recasting of every major role and a new director in Luc Besson protégé Louis Leterrier, the man responsible for The Transporter (2002) and Unleashed (2005). The digital effects used to bring the Hulk to life are the same mishmash of the convincing and the slightly cartoonish, which is also a good description of the film as a whole. For the most part, it works, albeit largely because its ambitions are so willfully scaled.

After a kaleidoscopic opening credits sequence that recaps how scientist Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) shot himself with gamma rays and unleashed his inner monster, we find Banner hiding in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, having gone 158 days “without incident,” as a title card tells us. Banner is feverishly trying to find a cure for his condition while the U.S. Army, led by the relentless General Ross (William Hurt), tries to track him down in order to exploit his unique situation for their weapons research. Banner ultimately finds it is impossible to disappear forever, and after the Army smokes him out of Brazil, he makes his way make to the U.S. and reconnects with his old flame and fellow scientist Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), who, of course, is the nefarious General Ross’s estranged daughter. New characters this time around include a ruthless Russian-English commando named Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), who is recruited by Ross to hunt Banner down, and Samuel Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson), a slightly goofy researcher who has been secretly helping Banner devise a cure.

Although still played with a relative air of seriousness, The Incredible Hulk is a much lighter film than Lee’s Hulk, partially because of its self-conscious inclusion of jokey cameos by Hulk creator Stan Lee and bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno, who played the monster on the late-’70s televisions series, but also because it jettisons almost all psychological depth and subtextual heft in favor of straight-ahead narrative velocity. This means the film runs much more smoothly than Lee’s arguably overstuffed take on the material, but it also cuts out anything that isn’t purely surface. The screenplay written by Zack Penn (who wrote the second two X-Men films) and reportedly retooled by Norton (who gets credit under the name Edward Harrison) takes the approach of assuming that the audience has seen Lee’s film and hoping that just enough of its complexity rubs off to help explain, for example, why Ross is so ruthless in tracking Banner down and why Banner’s condition means anything beyond morphing into a green, muscle-bound leviathan.

However, there are a few things The Incredible Hulk does better than its predecessor, including the chemistry between the two leads. Eric Bana and Jennifer Connelly, who played the lead roles in Lee’s film, simply had no chemistry and it showed; Norton and Tyler, on the other hand, create a convincing relationship that has a genuine sense of tenderness and connection (this aids immeasurably to the film’s best joke, in which a passionate scene of lovemaking must be stopped before it gets started because Banner can’t get too excited). For all his focus on sound and fury, Leterrier shows that he has a soft side, although your being moved will rely entirely on whether you find Betty and the Hulk sitting side by side in a cave romantic.

But, lest I sound like the film is all treacle, I must add that there is plenty of smash-’em-up action to be had, particularly at the end of the film when Harlem’s 125th Street becomes a battleground between the Hulk and Blonsky, who has been exposed to the same gamma radiation and has turned into an even more ferocious monstrosity hellbent on destruction. The idea, I suppose, is that hulkification rests in some way on the person’s initial disposition, although the exact contours of that relationship is left fairly vague. The Incredible Hulk is only passably interested in parsing such issues, especially when there are so many cars to be flipped and buildings to be smashed.

Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (2.5)

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