Sunday, June 22, 2008

In Theaters: The Incredible Hulk

Poster found at IMPAwards.com
So I finally got around to seeing THE INCREDIBLE HULK, delayed as I was by wanting to review the 2003 film first. This entry, which both continues and restarts the franchise at the same time, is being touted as more actiony and less burdened by drama, which is a fair assessment. It’ll please comic fans disappointed by the first movie, but it’s not too bad for those of us who liked the Ang Lee approach either; it’s obviously been made with some care and doesn’t go completely by the numbers. To be sure, sacrificing character development for action has its drawbacks, and the film has been the victim of some behind the scenes editing drama which unfortunately is detectable on screen. It’s not quite all it could be, but it does deliver what you want out of a Hulk movie.

Edward Norton (who helped write the picture, though he doesn’t receive screenplay credit) takes on the role of Bruce Banner, hiding out in Brazil and working on trying to tame the monster inside him. General Ross (William Hurt) is still trying to track him down, and hires mercenary super-soldier Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) to head up an anti-Hulk task force. But there’s a wrinkle- apparently the experiment that made Bruce all greenish was covertly sponsored by the military in an attempt to develop super soldiers. They’re still working on this, and after an attempt to catch Hulk in Brazil fails disastrously, Blonsky volunteers for a test of the latest super soldier serum. Meanwhile, Bruce has made anonymous contact with a scientist researching gamma radiation poisoning, and he needs the data from the experiment that transformed him. So he makes his way back to the United States, and to the university where the experiment took place. Still working there is Betty Ross (Liv Tyler this time), who hasn’t spoken to Bruce in about a year but hasn’t forgotten about him. She wants to help, and when the military try to capture Bruce on campus, he Hulks out, breaks several of Blonsky’s bones, and escapes with Betty in tow. Blonsky, thanks to the serum, heals remarkably quickly, and soon desires more power so he can battle the Hulk on equal terms. The results of his experimentation are not pretty.

This is not entirely a sequel to the Ang Lee film- we get an origin story in the opening credits that differs a bit- but it’s not entirely a reboot either, and since I liked the earlier movie I decided to take this as a follow-up. In any case the movie benefits from not having to do the origin over again (at least not in any detail); we’re able to jump straight to the action and the plot moves at a steady pace. Even in the slower moments the momentum carries us along, and I wasn’t ever bored.

I could have been impressed more, though. Various stories have gone around about how Marvel and Universal clashed with Edward Norton over the final assembly of the film (with actual director Louis Leterrier apparently undecided), and how Norton wanted more of the script’s psychological and character moments kept in. From at least one account the cut footage totaled about 70 minutes, and though I wonder if I would have noticed this had I not known beforehand, the film bears the marks of some very rigorous editing. Some character relationships seem underdeveloped, most notably Blonsky’s adversarial obsession with the Hulk. I’m not entirely sure of his character’s motivation overall, which is a problem since he’s the villain and unless you’re going for a Michael Meyers “unknowable evil” approach you do want to make clear what the baddie intends to get out of being bad. I think it’s just a fanatical devotion to his initial assignment and wanting to defeat his selected foe by any means necessary, but it could also be a desire to be the strongest and the best at what he does. (And what he does ain’t- sorry, jumped franchises there.) It’s kind of vague. You also have Brazilian model/actress D├ębora Nascimento as an unnaturally lovely bottling plant worker who theoretically has some chemistry with Bruce, and you can tell that this part was probably bigger at some point because she has no apparent purpose in the final cut. Other characters and elements of the story seem abbreviated as well, and though the plot can still be followed easily, it doesn’t have as much emotional and visceral oomph as it should.

Norton gives a fine performance, and he was a good choice from the start; he has the right blend of vulnerability and intensity, and manages some good comic timing as well. Liv Tyler, though she’s fairly sympathetic, doesn’t make a huge impact as Betty, and I’m starting to think this may be an inherently thankless role. William Hurt also seems flat as General Ross; his style of underplaying is hard to put to really good use, and he may just have been phoning this in. To compensate, though, Roth is superb, and character actor Tim Blake Nelson puts in a very welcome appearance.

Then there’s the Hulk himself, looking more realistic this time around (though I regret the loss of the purple shorts. Visual restraint be damned!) and finally going toe to toe with a monster that’s nearly as brawny. The effects are superb and the action sequences well directed- as I said they don’t have as much impact as they could, but it’s definitely fun to watch, and the final battle is actually pretty intense. I’m happy to report that the Hulk still leaps through the air with the greatest of ease, and has a few lines even, with a voice provided by none other than Lou Ferigno, who also shows up in an extended cameo. Comic fans will get a lot of nice easter eggs in this one, including a tease for a possible sequel villain and a well-advertised one scene appearance by a certain cool exec with a heart of steel.

The tone of this movie shifts a bit, perhaps due to the aforementioned cuts, but overall it’s not quite as serious as its predecessor and more clipped. It’s fun even if it doesn’t blow you away, and perhaps that’s too much to ask of a big summer movie; at heart these things have to appeal to a broad audience, and sometimes accomplishing this requires sacrificing some power. So this Hulk is, ultimately, not the strongest one there is- but it’s still well made and entertaining. I’d like to see a longer version sometime, and since we’ve gotten extended editions of several other Marvel movies I have hopes that this’ll happen. In the meantime, THE INCREDIBLE HULK does what it says on the tin, and well enough for me to recommend it.

I still think the version with the jellyfish was better, though.

Based on the comic character created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Written by Zak Penn
Directed by Louis Leterrier

Grade: B

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