The Incredible Hulk
You have a classic character. An audience suffering superhero fatigue. And the fresh memory of the perceived movie misfire you’re out to avenge. Making a winning Hulk film was no easy proposition in 2008.
“The Incredible Hulk” is not the film to do it. It’s arrival, from the hurried title sequence, feels uninspired. Motivated more by studio interests than storytelling, love for its protagonist or, at times, even entertainment. True, Ang Lee’s 2003 take on Hulk, wasn’t received with much warmth by audiences or critics. I felt it showed thought, care and surprising depth for a previously simple character opposed by single-minded forces. That it was presented with a unique, and fairly innovative, visual flair only heightened my enjoyment. Many others disagreed. Hulk’s franchise prospects seemed dim.
Thus beget “The Incredible Hulk” with Edward Norton as Dr. Bruce Banner. In this telling, Banner has already been exposed to gamma radiation; already lived to see the consequences of what it does to him – and those around him.
Incredibly (ahem), it starts promisingly enough. Banner is in hiding in Brazil. He works at a factory. Keeps himself in shape. Studies relaxation techniques and pursues holistic remedies for his condition. He wears a heart monitor on his wrist. He is careful.
Norton may seem an odd fit as Hulk but he is effective as Banner. Both are intelligent and daring. Norton also shows us a new side of the character – we witness the exhaustion and intense physical suffering Banner endures after reverting out of the Hulk form. It works.
But this is not a film much interested in intelligence or forging new paths, particularly if they detour from the next action sequence. Attribute this to French director Louis Leterrier, he of the Transporter films. He’s all punch-ups and shootouts. And now his fighters aren’t bound by human limitations of strength or endurance.
Leterrier pushes to show us his Hulk as early as possible. One of the criticisms of Lee’s movie was that it kept audiences waiting for the big guy to show up. Here, it’s done fast – and more or less effectively – once General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) and his hired gun Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) receive intel on Banner’s whereabouts. They find him. Fight him. He gets away. Predictably, this happens several more times in the film.
Blonsky is the consummate soldier. Decorated and endlessly determined. He sees the transformation Banner undergoes and sees new potential in himself. Ross can help make it a reality. Roth and Hurt are solid but have little to work with. Liv Tyler also shows up as Banner’s former colleague and flame, Dr. Betty Ross. But the character’s presence is barely necessary. And Tyler seems lost. Her feeble attempts at light comedy fall flat. Worse, she and Norton share no chemistry. Her most dramatic moments involve whispering “Bruce…” breathily to a nine-foot giant. The character’s a waste.
There are a few neat tricks. The green saturation. Roth sprinting 40 MPH and outrunning his entire squadron. Norton wisely deciding against riding the New York (or is it Toronto?) subway. Tim Blake Nelson turning up as a uniquely mad scientist in the third act.
But mostly it’s a whole lot of smashing stuff. The effective Marvel films imbue their characters with wit and charm. Villains hatching clever plans. Some magic. These are not outrageous expectations. But Leterrier plays “The Incredible Hulk” with one note. It’s safe and repetitive. After an hour of watching CGI street fights, we feel like Banner after a night of Hulking. Given the talents of Norton and Roth, wouldn’t you rather watch them duel with cunning and style than as cartoons (however impressive) that pound each other to dust?
“The Incredible Hulk” hinges on its main character’s ability to transform into something extraordinary when his heart rate accelerates. To make a film that drains the life out of this superhero’s oversized soul is fatal.
Edward Norton – Dr. Bruce Banner
William Hurt – Gen. Thaddeus Ross
Tim Roth – Emil Blonsky
Liv Tyler – Dr. Betty Ross
Tim Blake Nelson – Dr. Samuel Sterns
Directed by Louis Leterrier
Written by Zak Penn and Edward Norton (uncredited)
Running Time: 112 Minutes.