Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Credible Hulk

Time to head back into the dark. On my latest foray to the multiplex I saw ...

The Incredible Hulk (d. Louis Leterrier)

By now it has become accepted wisdom (wisdom I do NOT agree with, by the by) that Ang Lee's 2003 take on Marvel's Jolly Green Giant was an unmitigated disaster. Box-office-wise, after a stellar opening weekend, it dropped off the face of the earth. As a movie in its own right, it suffered for some baffling story choices (deadly mutant poodles?). And internet hacks (My People!) have made a spectator sport out of sniping at it. My favorite quip was: "Don't make me, Ang Lee. You wouldn't like me when I'm Ang Lee."

I forget who originated it. Sorry.

But old Jade Jaws is probably Marvel's second most recognizable character -- lagging just behind a certain arachnid-themed adventurer -- so another go-round was inevitable. The fans decried Ang's examination of the psyche of Bruce Banner, insisting that a film featuring the World's Most Powerful Mortal must bring the slam and the bang and bring them both in large economy-sized doses.

Enter Louis Leterrier, director of the satisfyingly violent Transporter films, with a vow to deliver action in the merely magnificent Marvel manner, as the splash-page copy used to promise. And there's no doubt about it: his film starts the punching and running and shooting early and never relents.

Instead of the comic, Leterrier takes as his primary inspiration the late 1970s "Incredible Hulk" TV show starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno (both of whom receive inventive cameos): the title sequence lifts shots verbatim from the classic program's opening. As in the show, Dr. Banner is a scientist who unwisely performed gamma-ray experiments on himself and inadvertently transformed into the Green-Skinned Goliath (I'll stop doing that now). Forced to hide as a fugitive, he wanders about desperately trying to find a cure for his condition.

When we first meet him in the movie, Bruce Banner, played with blazing intelligence and intensity by Edward Norton (who also gets a script credit as "Edward Harrison"), has successfully gone underground for about five months, working as a menial laborer in a Brazilian soft-drink plant. He takes special anger management seminars from a local martial arts instructor and corresponds with a mysterious "Mr. Blue" about developing a cure for his unique condition.

Meanwhile back in the U. S., the government and the army, personified by William Hurt as General "Thunderbolt" Ross, are urgently hunting for him. The General believes that Banner has made off with valuable military technology. "As far as I'm concerned," he says, "That man's whole body is the property of the United States Army."

Banner slips up just a tiny bit, pings the General's radar, and the chase is on.

Rounding out the cast are Tim Roth as an aging Army attack dog spoiling for a fight, and Liv Tyler as Betty -- excuse me, Doctor Elizabeth -- Ross, Banner's love and the General's daughter.

Unlike Ang's earlier movie, this film is not terribly interested in the psychology of Banner or his monstrous alter ego, though there are a few brief moments when Betty wonders just how much of Bruce is inside the Hulk. And the computer animators have employed elements of both Norton's and Roth's faces as a basis for their respective monster's visages. But for the most part, such examinations are left deep below the surface of this effective actioner.

Leterrier's skill directing the physical serves the fim well. Particularly effective is an early chase scene through Brazilian hovels as Norton tries to escape Roth's team while not allowing himself to get overly stimulated. His need to keep calm under all circumstances also sabotages an intimate moment with Tyler. "I can't get excited," he says, breaking a clinch. "Not even a little?" she asks, disappointed.

So The Incredible Hulk does what it sets out to do: reboot a Hulk franchise as a flat-out, no-holds-barred dust-up. And it's a good one. Leterrier has a flair for such material and the action set-pieces are all well executed and fairly clever.

Plus, like the summer's biggest hit to date, Iron Man, the film benefits greatly from a cast that effortlessly projects smarts. Norton, Roth and Hurt are all among our brightest actors and even Tyler does a not-laughable job of assaying the part of a scientist.

There's a 400-pound gorilla in the room, however. Or, more aptly, a 2000-pound green monster. The Hulk creature itself never looks like anything other than what it is; a great big blob of pixels and CGI code. Ditto the Abomination creature. I'm not sure what can be done about that, other than cross your fingers and hope that the technology improves. The fact is that Ang Lee's monster looked better than this one, despite the attempts to grime him up (and give him a kicky new hair-do).

And, also like Iron Man, the film degenerates toward the end into the spectacle of one cartoon punching another, though it should be said that Leterrier's cartoons fight each other more inventively than Jon Favreau's did.

The Incredible Hulk packs plenty of punch, though. More than enough.

3 stars.

Spoiler Notes (Do NOT read further if you don't want the film's surprises revealed):

"Mr. Blue," played by another wildly intelligent actor, Tim Blake Nelson, turns out to be Samuel Sterns who we comic-book fans know better as The Leader. Sequel much? Plus, Robert Downey Jr. ambles into the film at the very end as Tony Stark and, just like the Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) cameo after the credits in Iron Man, sets up the Avengers movie, which has on the schedule for 2011. Ah, sweet continuity!

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