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The Incredible Hulk / **½ (PG-13)Posted Monday, June 16, 2008, at 9:11 PM
"The Incredible Hulk" smashes his way back into theaters this summer.
With so many superheroes, their powers are both a blessing and a curse. Perhaps no other superhero is as cursed by their powers as the Hulk. If you make the meek scientist Bruce Banner angry, he transforms into a giant, green, hulking beast. He loses most of his personality to the beast within and becomes an instrument of destruction. He's really not much good as a hero unless there is meaner giant beast who he can pummel into the earth.
In 2003, Ang Lee gave us his version of "Hulk" but failed to provide that other beast as a villain, allowing Hulk to achieve his limited potential as a hero. Instead, most of Lee's battles for the Hulk existed within his psyche and the action of the movie involved the military shooting bigger and bigger guns at the tortured hero with no effect beyond making him angrier. Most audiences and critics were disappointed that the action was not the driving force of Lee's story. In my original review of that film I described it as "a long, laborious, intellectual struggle that lacks all the sentimental hope, raw passion and outright fun of earlier versions."
"The Incredible Hulk" is the film we all wanted to see back in 2003. The filmmakers were obviously fans of the television series. They cast TV's Hulk Lou Feriggno for Hulk's voice and give him a screen cameo as a security guard as well. An early scene has Craig Armstrong's score echoing the well-known "walk away" theme music. The filmmakers also use that series' signature of providing a close up of Banner's changed green eyes to signal to the audience that he had been angered enough to transform into the Hulk. Instead of the introspective personal issues Lee used his film to explore, this "Hulk" was made for the fans by fans.
Foregoing the traditional superhero origin story by depicting it in montage during the opening credit sequence, the story begins in Favela, Brazil where Banner has taken refuge as a fugitive from the U.S. military. The only thing more impressive than the filmmakers' creation of a fifteen foot tall green man are the images of the rooftops of Favela where there seem to be apartments stacked upon apartments up and down the Brazilian hillside. The city makes for an impressive and original landscape in which to introduce most of the main characters.
Banner (Edward Norton, "The Illusionist") is hiding out as a handy man in a Favela bottling factory when a drop of his blood finds its way into a bottle of soda. When a man in the States (Hulk creator Stan Lee in a cameo) dies of Gamma poisoning, General Ross (William Hurt, "Vantage Point") is able to zero in on Banner. He brings in a specialist to capture him, a former Russia agent named Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth, "Funny Games"). Blonsky is fascinated with the power of the creature Banner turns into during the failed attempt to capture the Jekyll and Hyde character.
Just before Banner's cover is blown an unknown scientist discovers a possible cure for his ailment. Banner returns to the states to retrieve some important data and meet his savior. This course brings him back into contact with his former lover Betty Ross (Liv Tyler, "Jersey Girl"), who also happens to be the daughter of Banner's nemesis, the not-so-good General. It was at about this point that I noticed a pattern emerging. It is a pattern that worked perfectly well for episodic television twenty years ago, but becomes redundant to see over and over again during a two-hour movie. Banner is hiding out. Banner is discovered while trying to fix something. He gets smacked around by the authorities, hulks out and runs away again. I am reminded of complaints against "Titanic" that decried the characters running away from water for the last hour and a half. They were surrounded by it. It was inevitable they were going to get wet.
Eventually, the morally reprehensible and not entirely bright General Ross injects Blonsky with some of the "super soldier" serum Banner was working on when he was initially turned into the Hulk. Blonsky ultimately turns into a giant man-beast himself, The Abomination; and finally Hulk has his nemesis who he must stop from destroying New York City.
Louis Leterrier ("Unleashed") directs a good looking movie. It is gritty and moves along at a tight pace, starting with the stunning chase sequence through Favela, seizing a daylight gothic look for the fight on the university campus--which I believe is supposed to be Princeton, although it was filmed in Canada--and finally reaching for the mock reality of "Cloverfield" during Hulk's final showdown with the Abomination in the streets of New York. The Hulk is no longer the clunky cartoonish green man of 2003's "Hulk". His muscle structure is more defined and skin color--while still suggesting green--is something of a more organic nature.
For all its excitement, "The Incredible Hulk" feels strangely empty after it's over. The skin is always greener… or something like that. But darn it all if I don't miss all that pathos of Lee's "Hulk". I recently watched that movie again and found I had changed my mind about it. "Hulk" was introspective and intellectual in the way it explored the violent nature of man and the dark secrets that drive us in our aggression. "The Incredible Hulk" barely even gives us the aggression. Banner does more running away than attacking here. Considering that "Hulk" has the intelligence, but not the action; and "The Incredible Hulk" has the action, but not the depth; perhaps a happy medium can be achieved with "The Astonishing Hulk".
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Andrew is a professionally trained actor and stage director. He was a reporter for the daily newspaper The Marshall Democrat News. He has been critiquing film since Mr. Lucas released the first of his "Star Wars" prequels in 1999. His reviews can also be seen at his blog site.