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The Incredible Hulk (2008)

DIRECTOR: Louis Letterier

CAST:

Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, William Hurt, Tim Blake Nelson

REVIEW:

Despite being a popular Marvel Comics property and a potential film franchise in its own right, The Hulk flopped at the box office in Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk, which was critically-praised but a dud with audiences.  Rather than supply a direct sequel, Marvel decided to reboot the franchise, ignoring the previous film and kicking straight off with The Incredible Hulk, a more conventional superhero film, foregoing the more talky and introspective aspects that some critics appreciated about Ang Lee’s take but bored theater-going crowds expecting more “Hulk Smash” action.  The result may please hoping for more action and “hulking out”, but alas this second attempt at bringing The Hulk to the big screen does not escape being mediocre and forgettable.  Among Marvel’s fledgling crop of interconnected comic book movies, The Incredible Hulk is not up to the level of this same summer’s Iron Man .

We open with a fragmented and somewhat confusing prologue sketching out how scientist Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) suffered an accident causing an extreme overexposure to gamma radiation that unleashed a deadly alter ego: a huge, green, uncontrollably powerful and destructive monster called The Hulk.  Ever since, Banner has been on the run, alienated from his ex-girlfriend, fellow scientist Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), and pursued by the military under her hard-nosed father General Ross (William Hurt), who wants to obtain and weaponize Banner’s DNA to breed a new generation of super soldier.  When we pick up, Banner is living as a reclusive loner in Brazil.  It has been months since his last “incident”, and he practices meditative exercises to control his anger while seeking a permanent cure for his volatile condition.  But when an accident at a factory tips off General Ross to his location, an elite strike team led by Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) is dispatched to capture him.  Unsurprisingly, this ends badly, with Banner “hulking out” and wreaking havoc before escaping into the jungle.  From there, he returns to the United States, where he reunites with Betty and meets up with another scientist (Tim Blake Nelson), who claims to be able to cure him.  Meanwhile, Ross and Blonsky try another tactic: injecting Blonsky with a serum to enhance his fighting abilities, but when Blonsky’s obsession with going mano-a-mano with The Hulk leads to an overdose, he becomes Abomination, a vicious monster with strength equal to The Hulk.

With Hulk flopping at the box office (despite critical praise and some fans arguing the film’s merits to this day), it’s understandable that Marvel decided to just wave their magic wand and pretend it never happened to wipe the slate clean and jump into another installment without being tied to what came before.  The problem is, The Incredible Hulk can’t seem to quite make up its mind whether it’s a complete reboot or a slight sequel, although all roles have new faces (Edward Norton replaces Eric Bana, Liv Tyler replaces Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt replaces Sam Elliott).  It skips straight over the origin story (except for the fleeting glimpses of the experiment accident over the opening credits) and jumps into Banner already having been on the run for some time and leaves us to piece together as we go his past histories with General Ross and Betty (and their father-daughter relationship).  The way Banner became The Hulk in this version contradicts Hulk‘s telling, but The Incredible Hulk feels like we were dropped into the middle of an ongoing story and jumped straight over a lot of origin story set-up and character establishment.

The early scenes of Banner practicing meditative anger management exercises are intriguing, and convey how he lives each day in a state of constant careful control (brought back up again in a later scene where he turns down the chance to have sex with Betty for fear of getting “too excited”, where that would hold an entirely different meaning than what most women might expect).  I wouldn’t have objected to this angle being expanded on before we get to the generic action sequences.  Unfortunately, when the action does arrive, director Louis Letterier doesn’t show much flair.  There’s a lot of shaky camera shots of soldiers, Hummers, gunships, etc. rushing around, The Hulk throwing things, and stuff blowing up, but particularly in the first cat-and-mouse shootout in a warehouse, it’s a little hard to follow what’s going on.  The middle action sequence where Banner “hulks out” on a university campus and is surrounded by soldiers and army vehicles is more extensive, although it suffers from The Hulk’s CGI being most obvious in broad daylight.  In fairness, while The Incredible Hulk is heavier on action than depth, it doesn’t completely forgo the latter.  In fairness, there are a couple effective moments of character interaction.  There is a flicker of a heartbeat in the scene where Betty sits on a transforming Bruce’s chest and tells him to look at her eyes as he struggles to control himself, and a (probably deliberate) King Kong vibe to the scene where he gently cradles her in his arms as they later shelter together in a cave.  The climactic throwdown between Hulk and Abomination in the streets of Manhattan is sufficiently knock down drag-out and destructive, although Abomination’s ultimate fate is left a little up in the air (as is Tim Blake Nelson’s Sterns, although comic book fans will know more on this than casual viewers).  As for the visual effects, The Hulk is effective in some shots, especially medium-distance or dimly-lit, and overly cartoonish in broad daylight or facial closeups.

Edward Norton (who also wrote a draft of the script) is fine as Banner, playing him with a weight-of-the-world weariness and guarded reserve.  He is a man who has a lot to be upset about, yet cannot let his emotions run away with him, and Norton plays him with the right low-key matter-of-factness.  Like a recovering alcoholic, when the screen reads “Days Without Incident: 147”, and later “Days Without Incident: 1”, we feel a spark of sympathy.  It’s not one of Norton’s exceptional performances, but it’s better than the others on hand.  Liv Tyler’s breathy vocal tones and ethereal looks worked in The Lord of the Rings but make her less-suited to some more girl-next-door parts, and she’s somewhat awkward as Betty, although she and Norton do have a sense of longing between them.  The “villains”—though they’re more antagonists than flat-out “bad guys”—are a weak duo.  William Hurt phones it in as General Ross, and his flat, bland interpretation leaves us missing Sam Elliott, whose Ross was both better-acted and better-written.  Likewise, Tim Roth, who played one of the all-time great detestable movie villains in Rob Roy, is disappointingly one-note and bland here; his characterization consists of little more than stalking around with his trademark sneer firmly in place.  Tim Blake Nelson is his usual oddball self in a small role as a fairly standard issue mad scientist, and Lou Ferrigno has a cameo as a security guard (and speaks The Hulk’s couple lines).  Speaking of cameos, Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark makes a quick drop in right before the end credits roll, and S.H.I.E.L.D. is mentioned, making it clear that The Incredible Hulk takes place in the same “universe” as Iron Man, which gives it a small boost by including it in a universe it otherwise feels beneath.

Ultimately, The Incredible Hulk is adequate summer comic book movie escapism fare, but lacks the distinction and panache of Iron Man.  There are some surefire fanboy-pleasing moments (in the climactic battle, The Hulk, voiced by Lou Ferrigno, growls “Hulk Smash!”), and a bit of action and a bit of romance.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t escape wallowing in mediocrity.  This Hulk is adequate, but he’s not incredible.

***

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