Saturday 1 November 2008

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Saturday 1 November 2008
Director: Louis Leterrier
Writer: Zak Pen (based on characters created by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby)

It's fair to say Ang Lee's cerebral, artistic take on Marvel comic's Incredible Hulk didn't meet with universal praise. In the years since its release in 2003, Hulk has amassed a cult following of people who appreciate its finer points and originality, but the all-important popcorn crowd walked away grumbling that Hulk didn't smash nearly enough…

Louis Leterrier's reboot dispenses with Lee's cast (who were under contract for sequels) and lures the replacement talents of comic-book fan Edward Norton (as Bruce Banner, the gamma-radiated scientist who turns into a raging green giant if angered), Liv Tyler (as Betty, his doe-eyed ex-girlfriend), William Hurt (as General Ross, the moustachioed ball-breaker hot on fugitive Banner's trail), and Tim Roth (as Emil Blonsky, a top soldier for Ross, who lets the unbalanced odds of success fuel a desire for victory at all costs.)

The opening credits retells the origin story, making it clear this Hulk is a sequel to Ang Lee's film in only one respect: it picks up five years later, with Banner still on the run from Ross' mercenaries in South America. Don't ask me why Banner thinks living in Brazil as a bottle factory engineer is the ideal place to manage his anger. Surely he could live happily in isolated Alaska for the rest of his days? Regardless, Banner's searching for a cure to his condition with the help of mysterious cyber-contact "Mr. Blue" (no prizes for guessing Banner's username), while trying to avoid capture by Ross' armed mercenaries and prevent mass destruction if his heartbeat breaks 200 bpm.

Strangely, despite the intention of Hulk to emphasize the action, there's nothing here that's particularly memorable. The CGI Hulk spends his first action sequence shrouded in darkness, a campus-set rumble with military hardware is quite brief, and the climactic New York tussle with CGI antagonist Abomination is annoyingly limited in both scope and spectacle. Indeed, 2003's Hulk may have contained slothful chasms between its spectacle, but when the action arrived it was far grander and inventive than anything Leterrier offers.

But there are definitely improvements with this new Hulk: the green giant himself is less cherubic and sympathetic than Lee's version (and doesn't fluctuate in size to a laughable degree), the pace is much stronger, and Norton seems more in tune with the material than Eric Bana ever was. Unfortunately, the rest of the casting misses the mark: Liv Tyler is a good visual match for Betty, but she's clearly the poor man's Jennifer Conelly in the acting stakes; William Hurt lacks the magnetism of Sam Elliot (only inheriting the 'tache); and Tim Roth's Emil Blonsky is scuppered by unconvincing reasons to transform himself into a rampaging monster. And is Roth wearing a fake muscle-chest in some scenes?

The effects are generally very good, with Rhythm & Hues doing an admirable job of improving on ILM's character design. The quality of motion-captured characters has clearly improved, and I didn't have many complaints about the reality of Hulk and Abomination in their scenes. If anything, it's the supporting effects that fail to sparkle (check out a poorly-realized helicopter gunship crash), probably because the CGI creatures got the lion's share of the $150 million budget.

Ultimately, without a compelling reason to get caught up in the story and the character's lives, the CGI offers half-empty spectacle. The street fight between Hulk and Abomination is crippled by a distinct lack of sympathy for either character, or their opposing situations and desires. Abomination hasn't caused enough mayhem and destruction for us to ache for Hulk to save the day, and the motivation for Abomination to kill Hulk is a feeble cliché. A superhero/supervillain punch-up just shouldn't be this tiresome, as the mayhem is several steps behind its audience's imagination, and Abomination goes out like a punk.

On the positive side, I had fun with the abundance of predictable in-jokes (cameo's for Stan Lee and Lou Ferrigno, a reprise of the "Lonely Man" piano theme from the '80s TV series, the purchase of stretchy purple shorts to spare Hulk's modesty, etc.), an unexpected set-up for a future villain The Leader caught me unawares, and a last-minute cameo for Iron Man's Tony Stark delivers a grin wider than Hulk's pectorals.

Overall, The Incredible Hulk accomplishes what Marvel wanted it to, but it also reminds you how interesting and unique Ang Lee's unfairly-derided vision was. That film tackled parental relationships, the power of emotion, and the struggle for self-control. This do-over smashes a lot of vehicles. If you combine Lee and Leterrier's vision, there's a great Hulk story waiting to be pieced together in the editing room, but probably not a long-running franchise.

Hulk smash? Hulk snores.

Universal Studios / Marvel Studios
Budget: $150 million
114 minutes

Cast: Ed Norton (Bruce Banner/Hulk), Liv Tylr (Dr. Elizabeth "Betty" Ross), Tim Roth (Emil Blonsky/Abomination), William Hurt (General Thadddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross), Tim Blake Nelson (Dr. Samuel Sterns), Ty Burrell (Dr. Lennord Samson), Christina Cabot (Major Kathleen "Kat" Sparr), Peter Mensah (General Joe Greller), Paul Soles (Stanley), Débora Nascimento (Martina), Greg Bryk (Commando #1), Chris Owens (Commando #2), Al Vrkljan (Commando #3), Adrian Hein (Commando #4) & Lou Ferrigno (Security Guard/Hulk, voice)