Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Incredible Hulk

It is impossible not to hold up side-by-side the two movies based on the Marvel Comics character The Hulk. In the summer of 2003, Oscar winner Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain) gave us the good, but deeply flawed Hulk, a visually ambitious, psychologically contemplative movie. Although it made $245 million, it was considered a disappointment by most, and so we get a completely new cast and crew this summer in a sequel/re-boot of the franchise in The Incredible Hulk. While not at all interested in the psychological depths that Lee looked to explore in the first movie, and nowhere near as visually interesting, The Incredible Hulk is an overall more successful venture. It’s a very well made big dumb action movie.

The movie opens with Dr. Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) living in Brazil, working in a soda bottling factory, on the run from the United States military, and in particular the Army’s General Ross (William Hurt). General Ross calls in Special Forces ace Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) to lead a team sent to stealthily capture and sedate Bruce. Things don’t go quite according to plan, and Bruce runs for it through the buildings and streets of the city, eventually getting cornered in the soda factory. He is provoked enough when trapped, and transforms (against his will) into The Hulk. Blonksy is astonished at the size and power of the mysterious creature, and is soon working with General Ross to turn himself into a type of super-soldier to combat the monster. Bruce, on the run again, ends up in Virginia at the college of former colleague, love, and daughter of the General, Dr. Elizabeth “Betty” Ross (Liv Tyler). It’s not long before Betty and Bruce are on the run together looking for a cure for this illness, battling Blonsky and General Ross in the process.

I’ve always found Edward Norton to be a talented, but overrated actor. Here he is good, but a little bland as Bruce (just as Eric Bana was in the same part in the first movie). He conveys everything that the script asks him to, but he’s not exactly flexing his acting muscles here. Liv Tyler, while beautiful and talented, is not the caliber of actress that Jennifer Connelly was in playing Betty in Hulk. But although she starts out a little shaky, she does get better as the movie goes along, and she and Norton have a nice chemistry together. William Hurt has proven himself throughout his career to be a very gifted actor, and has turned in a number of excellent performances. Here however, I think the part requires the gravitas that Sam Elliot brought to Hulk, and I can’t look at Hurt’s mustache without thinking how much more formidable Elliot’s is. Livening up the proceedings are the two notorious scene stealers Tim Blake Nelson and Tim Roth. Nelson plays a doctor who works with Bruce to find a cure to the disease of The Hulk, but may not see the problem the same way Bruce does. And of course Roth is a delight as Blonsky, intent on finding a way to defeat The Hulk. Though he doesn’t go over the top (the way Nelson does), Roth shows the growing competition in Blonsky’s eyes as The Hulk bests him time and again. It’s not on par with his villainous turn in Rob Roy, but it’s always a welcome sight to see Roth as the antagonist.

Ang Lee took the look of the comic book world further than any other director had tried with Hulk, but many audience members resisted his split-screens, multiple panels, and occasionally bizarre cutting. Directing duties on The Incredible Hulk, on the other hand, have been given to action movie director Louis Leterrier (The Transporter), and he has no such ambitions. That’s not to say that the movie looks bad, because it doesn’t. It’s just that Leterrier is not Ang Lee, and The Incredible Hulk has no visual flair to distinguish itself from hundreds of other action and superhero movies. Leterrier knows how to direct action, and it shows here. The assault on The Hulk at the college campus especially is a terrific bit of work, and is much better than the slightly disappointing final battle. The CGI has improved, if only slightly, and The Hulk himself does look better than he did in Lee’s movie. Leterrier also brought the movie in at 112 minutes, thankfully less than the bloated 138 minutes of Lee’s Hulk (which could’ve easily been cut down to a similar runtime).

Overall, The Incredible Hulk succeeds mostly because although it doesn’t do anything great, it doesn’t do anything wrong either. It’s got some enjoyable action sequences, nice chemistry between the leads, a good villain, and a runtime under two hours. And while you’d be much better off spending your superhero deprived time seeing Iron Man or The Dark Knight (if you’ve yet to see them), you wouldn’t exactly be wasting your money on this one.

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