THE INCREDIBLE HULK
Film critics often complain about the mind-numbing sameness of most summer blockbusters, but whenever a big-budget picture comes along that attempts to offer something different (such as the underrated Speed Racer, Batman Returns or, back in the day, Tron), we have a tendency to morph into the filmic equivalent of Sean Hannity or Bill O'Reilly. Few recent films exposed this odd schizophrenia more blatantly than Ang Lee's 2003 interpretation of the iconic Marvel Comics creation The Incredible Hulk, which took a standard-issue Jekyll-and-Hyde character and turned him into the star his very own Greek tragedy, complete with a tragic flaw and serious daddy issues. For his trouble, the celebrated director received a critical drubbing and an historic second-week drop-off at the box office.
To be fair, Lee's Hulk is something of an ungainly beast, alternating moments of sheer beauty (like the title character's upper atmosphere freefall, an image that has since been swiped by Bryan Singer and Jon Favreau for Superman Returns and Iron Man, respectively) with scenes of stunning banality (anytime Josh Lucas appears onscreen) or head-scratching strangeness (that bizarre ending where Nick Nolte's Papa Hulk turns into some kind of cloud creature before being nuked). Still, the anger Lee aroused by not following the blockbuster playbook remains something of a surprise. Hulk has its problems, sure, but would the critics who tore it to shreds really prefer to see more comic-book movies like Elektra or Ghost Rider?
Well, those folks who expected more "Hulk smash!" and less "Hulk brood!" from Lee's picture will be happy to hear that Hulk Version 2.0—or, as it's officially known, The Incredible Hulk—is more brawny than brainy. From the first frame, incoming director Louis Leterrier (best known as the brains behind the gleefully cartoonish Transporter films) makes it clear that he has little patience for the kind of deliberate pace and psychological insight that his predecessor attempted to bring into the mix.
At first, his ruthless efficiency is refreshing. Rather than waste the audience's time with 40 minutes of exposition, Leterrier boils the Hulk's origin story down into a two-minute montage that plays during the opening credits. The movie then transports us instantly to Brazil, where Dr. Bruce Banner (Edward Norton, taking over the role from Eric Bana) is in hiding from a U.S. military squad, led by General Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt, in for Sam Elliott), the stern father of Banner's former lover and colleague, Betty Ross (Liv Tyler, doing her best Jennifer Connelly impression). It isn't long, of course, before Ross tracks him down and sends ace British mercenary Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) into battle to capture him. This leads to the first of many Hulk-outs, where Banner's green id asserts itself and causes enormous amounts of destruction. In an effort to subdue the beast, Ross decides to inject some of the same drugs that created the Hulk into an eager Blonsky, a decision he comes to regret when the chemicals eventually transform the soldier into a massive scaly creature known as The Abomination.
What's interesting about The Incredible Hulk is that for all its emphasis on action, the movie is actually a more tedious sit than Lee's film. That's because the first Hulk actually attempted to tell a story in between set-pieces. One could argue endlessly about whether or not it was the right story to be telling, but the fact remains that Lee had some specific ideas he wanted to explore with the title character. Leterrier has no such vision; on the contrary, he's entirely aware that he's been hired to provide all the CGI-enhanced destruction and comic-book references (pay particular attention to the passing mention of a "super-soldier serum"—it'll come in handy later) that moviegoers went in expecting the first time around. He's done that, but what he hasn't accomplished is giving viewers any reason to stay in their seats between the action sequences.
Thanks to Norton's curiously zombified performance, we have little incentive to root for Banner to learn to control his anger. But the film really stops dead in its tracks anytime Norton and Tyler have to pretend that they're in love and not actually eager to be as far away from each other as possible. Not since a disturbingly waxy Nicolas Cage wooed Eva Mendes in Ghost Rider has there been a comic-book movie romance as improbable and as dull as this one.
It's telling that the loudest cheers and applause heard during The Incredible Hulk weren't for the Hulk himself, but for the star of another recent Marvel Comics movie (here's a hint: the name rhymes with "siren ban") who makes an unbilled cameo here, laying yet another brick in the foundation of a planned Avengers team-up flick. Hopefully, by the time that project goes before cameras, Marvel will have figured out how to give us a cinematic Hulk who's as incredible as the one that's endured for four decades on the page.
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