[Editor's note: this review details specific sequences in the film and readers should be considered 'spoiler-warned']
Ever since the buildup began for the new Hulk film, we’ve been hearing everyone involved try their best not to put down Ang Lee or his 2003 movie, while at the same saying that their movie would be completely different.
The Incredible Hulk is a wildly flawed, wildly entertaining comic book action romp that should restore the faith of the fanboy faithful who saw their emerald-skinned hero let down so badly five years ago. At least that was the reaction at the NYC screening I attended Monday night.
Where the first one had mind-bogglingly dense dialogue and Shakespearean family issues – and too little action – this new take on Marvel’s Misunderstood Monster goes for a straightforward story, old-fashioned romance and plenty of ‘Hulk Smash’ moments. In other words, the filmmakers bent over backwards to give the fans what they thought they wanted.
A breakneck opening credits sequence cleverly shows the ‘origin’ part of the story (this is a reboot, not a continuation, after all). We see Bruce Banner’s experiment go horribly wrong, and how he, as The Hulk, accidentally injures Betty during his blind rage.
Five years later, Banner (Ed Norton) is living in a hillside favela in Brazil. Alone except for his dog, Banner works at a local bottling plant while continuing to search for a cure. He takes self-defense classes and learns breathing exercises to keep his heart rate under control. It almost feels like we’re watching a lost episode of the old TV show, which director Louis Leterrier admits was a bigger influence on him than the comics.
Before long though, General “Thunderbolt” Ross (bitterly played by Oscar-winner William Hurt) tracks Banner down and sends in a commando squad, led by Special Ops vet Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth). The ensuing chase scene through the favela is kinetic and more than a bit familiar to anyone who saw “The Bourne Ultimatum.”
After Banner’s South American escape (where we catch a tantalizing glimpse of the Hulkster), he comes back home to the states, and hopefully, to Betty Ross (Liv Tyler). Only problem is, she’s dating a psychiatrist named Leonard… yeah, that guy.
Norton and Tyler’s chemistry is immediate and sincere from their first onscreen encounter, a reunion in a rainstorm.
Tyler brings a passion to Betty that was missing from Jennifer Connolly’s take on the role. Norton too, proved to be far more adept than Eric Bana at capturing the essence of the character, a man haunted by his own terrible mistake.
As Blonsky and Ross conspire to increase their chances of catching the Hulk, we learn that Banner was unaware he was being manipulated by the military during his initial experiments. That it was part of the rebirth of the original Super-Soldier program from World War II. We even see a vial of Gamma juice with the name of the inventor of the Super-Soldier serum, Dr. Reinstein.
This nifty story twist, plus a now well-known cameo appearance in the film, all serve as nice threads for the growing Marvel Movie-verse (as well as set the stage for the upcoming Captain America and Avengers movies).
But what about the action, you say? Don’t worry, there’s plenty of it here. Our first major Hulk-out scene, on a college campus, is ear-shatteringly spectacular. You see the bullets impact on the Hulk’s skin. You see his veins bulging as he rages at the soldiers.
That sequence also boasts the coolest-sounding effect I’ve heard since the seismic charges in Episode II: Attack of the Clones.
Director Leterrier, whose only other notable films before this were the Transporter movies, brings an urgency and an active camera to his action pieces.
The film does sacrifice character development for the sake of pacing. And considering how much was made of the fact that Norton rewrote most of the script, the dialogue in many scenes is unremarkable and predictable. Perhaps the much-discussed arguing over final cut left some meatier scenes on the edit room floor. Guess we’ll find out on the Director’s Cut DVD.
The improvements in CGI technology are on full display here. The Hulk we see here is darker and more olive than green skin. His movements are fluid, and the effects in general are seamless.
And once The Abomination appears, the stage is set for the kind of no-holds barred, super-powered slugfest Jack Kirby used to draw back in the 60s for Marvel. It delivers in a loud, destructive way. And we get a Hulk sonic boom!!
Perhaps the biggest drawback to the film is that as the central villain, the lifetime soldier Blonsky, Roth is mildly convincing as a bad-ass Hulkbuster…until we see him without his shirt. Roth looks like more like the guy getting sand kicked in his face in the old Charles Atlas than the Rambo-type soldier he’s playing. Couldn’t he have bulked up for the role?
As Banner’s mysterious cyberspace collaborator ‘Mr. Blue’ on a possible cure, Tim Blake Nelson doesn’t even show up onscreen until the last half hour or so of the film. But he adds some welcome comic relief and helps set up the film’s climactic clash.
He’s also involved in one of the film’s many tips of the hat to Gamma-lore. The film is littered with in-the-know moments and tributes that eagle-eyed long-timers will recognize. A college reporter named Jack McGee, a play on the famous “Don’t make me angry” line, as well as the inevitable cameos by Lou Ferrigno and Stan Lee. The nod to the late Bill Bixby was an especially nice touch. There’s even one shot of Norton about to ‘Hulk Up’ that is a direct swipe from the TV show, when Bixby’s eyes would turn green, just before he changed.
At its core a chase movie, The Incredible Hulk effectively wipes the slate clean for one of Marvel’s flagship properties. As promised, it ups the ante on the action and sets the stage for future installments.
Perfect? Not even close. But it’s certainly a crowd-pleaser.