Friday, June 13, 2008

"The Incredible Hulk" -- * * *

After Ang Lee's misunderstood, but generally despised, "Hulk" opened in June of 2003, there was a kind of backlash/ire from audience and critics (though more from audience) towards what they were given, that it seemed this character with extreme amounts of crowd-pleasing potential had been forced into early retirement. Ever since director Louis Leterrier and writer/star Edward Norton's reboot of sorts, "The Incredible Hulk," was announced, it's stuck out as one of the summer movie season's big question marks. Many wondered if it would just be another missed opportunity, and the Hulk would be given two shots now and both end up sucking; the underwhelming trailers didn't help matters. Personally, I was more concerned that given the recoiling by audiences from Lee's character-driven, intelligent approach, that this would swing the pendulum too far in the other direction and resort to non-stop brainless action. Well, while Leterrier's loud, fast film is very clearly an intentional reaction to Lee's quiet, slow one, it does end up justifying its existence and carving out an identity as a well-crafted, entertaining B-movie that doesn't insult your intelligence nor reek of joylessness. I'd still like to see Norton's supposedly significantly longer cut, but this is neither too brainy nor too stupid, goes for a slow build (which I always like) and should satisfy audiences much in the way "Iron Man" has been. If nothing else, it's an opportunity for this character to be featured in the kind of movie crowds want to see him in.

Smartly using its opening credits sequence to give back story to those who were confused about the film's re-boot-ing, kind-of-a-sequel, kind-of-not nature (as well as quickly name-dropping 'Stark Industries' and 'Nick Fury'), we're shown physicist Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) working in a Brazilian bottling plant, hiding out from the people who know him. Still struggling to find a cure from the botched gamma radiation experiment that turns him into a huge green monster whenever his blood pressure hits 200, Banner's hiding specifically from General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt), while missing his love, Ross's daughter Betty (Liv Tyler) and e-mailing scientist "Mr. Blue," a cellular biologist who might help him find a cure. General Ross, along with his top soldier, Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), are determined to find Banner in the hopes of capturing him and using his "curse" / mutated genes as a weapon to enable soldiers with Hulk-like capabilities. When Banner returns to the states to see Betty, his cover blown, and Ross and Blonsky's efforts see no results, Blonsky willingly has similar genetic mutations injected into him to level the playing field, so to speak. Much property destruction ensues.

Whether I like it or not, the studio was smart to action up the proceedings this time around, as that's what audiences want to see, but Leterrier avoids making this an orgiastic, overly Hulk-y affair, at least not at first. The first chase/Hulk scene at the 22-minute mark almost entirely avoids showing the creature and manages to be more effective and exciting for it. Not only does it give us Blonsky's point-of-view and add a sense of mystery and suspense to the sequence, it also makes the green guy's ultimate in-full appearance a cool moment, better for being built up to (I almost wish the trailers avoided showing the Hulk at all). It's also worth noting the restraint in this being pretty much the Hulk's only appearance in the first half of the film. Leterrier's avoids the frenetic direction that reared its head in his 'Transporter 2' and makes this a superhero movie that shouldn't make anyone dizzy or bombarded. While there is action aplenty, it's still a fairly story-centric affair and is paced not too slow and not too quick. Whenever Bruce turns into the Hulk, the results are unquestionably entertaining, and builds to an ending action sequence that should rouse most audience members (including this one). The final big Hulk vs. Abominaton set-piece that makes up the last 10-15 minutes is perhaps a bit video-gamey, but it's extremely fun/entertaining, and I definitely preferred it to "Iron Man's" robot-on-robot finale. And kudos to whoever came up with the idea for it to take place on Harlem's 125th Street, with the Apollo visible in the background.

This may be a more pared-down, mainstream-accessible Hulk movie, but that doesn't mean it resorts to laziness or settling for bland formula. There are numerous inspired touches, with effort made to not make this feel exactly like every other superhero movie. Throughout the movie, there's a repeated 'Days Without an Incident' Counter at the bottom at the screen that's used to particularly clever effect, and the moments of levity when they come don't feel shoehorned in and usually work. Banner's purchasing of stretchy pants finally acknowledges fan's complaints about the Hulk's bottoms never ripping, while a comic moment of Bruce stopping sex with Betty because his heart rate might get too high simultaneously addresses an actual potential issue on the character's part. Other jokes, however, such as Banner not quite having mastered Portugese yet and delivering the subtitled threat, "You wouldn't like me when I'm hungry," are just funny. One also has to throw Zak Penn's screenplay some props for (a) being the first Marvel movie with a Stan Lee cameo that isn't entirely gratuitous/superfluous, and (b) using "Hulk Smash" in as minimally cheesy a manner as possible.

Even though the movie's equipped with an A-level cast, nobody really does aces work here, but Roth's the one that seems to be having the most fun, and thus, the most fun one to watch. Throwing a suitable level of callousness and sick joy into a guy who'll casually shoot an annoyingly barking dog with a tranquilizer dart, while displaying Kung Fu-like acrobatics, he's always the most interesting person on screen and has a particularly nice scene right before he becomes Abomination. A big deal has been made of an actor of his caliber taking this kind of role and 'class-ing' up the proceedings, but he doesn't bring much to the table besides street cred (and his appropriately pussy-ish voice), making it apparent Banner really could've been played just as effectively by anyone. I honestly can't quite explain why I like Liv Tyler in almost everything she's in but I do. She never shows particular range, but she always radiates sweetness, sincerity, and manages to look pretty in everything. I know some are put off by her breathy voice, but there's something about her I just like and can't put my finger on. Deal with it. As for Hurt, he's fine, but in my opinion, Sam Elliott was perfect casting for this gruff, overprotective general, and can't be topped in my eyes; throughout the movie, I kept flashing back to his performance and that didn't do wonders for my take on Hurt's work.

I've heard complaints about the effects work on the Hulk, but there's just no way to do this besides an all-CGI Hulk, and an all-CGI Hulk is never going to be photo-realistic, so it's best to just deal with it. I never had a "my god, that's fake-looking!" sentiment in my head during the movie, and for what it's worth, I think the effects are as real-looking as they're capable of being. If you just go with it, it shouldn't effect you. Thankfully however, Abomination doesn't look nearly as crappy as the trailers indicated. On the other end of the technical spectrum, Craig Armstrong's score is mostly generic and serviceable, but during the Hulk's second furious outrage, and during the climactic showdown, there are brief, subtle strains of organs recalling early 20th century horror movies that only the most attentive viewers will notice, but made me smile nonetheless.


Anybody who considers themselves a comic book fan, or even regularly browses certain websites, knows at this point that Robert Downey, Jr., as "Iron Man's" Tony Stark, makes a cameo here. I have no problem with this -- in fact, I think it's handled rather well, and it's kind of a brilliant idea, especially when viewed in the context of what Marvel is building these films to be. My two-fold issue is with what's been done with the scene. Firstly, it was very, very clearly intended to go after the credits (much like Sam Jackson's "Iron Man" Nick Fury cameo). The movie has a natural, very good ending, the screen goes black, the audience begins to applaud, it's clear credits were initially going to be cut to. But then we get one more scene where Stark shows up and talks to General Ross. It's a good scene, but it was obviously moved to before the credits after the massive success of "Iron Man," and it breaks the narrative flow of the movie. And, it also strikes me as a bit too inside baseball for those who (a) didn't see "Iron Man," or (b) aren't familiar with the "Avengers" direction these Marvel films will be taking down the line. It would've been a nice, dare I say 'awesome,' fan-tailored bonus after the credits, but where it is now, it's crowd-pleasing, but kind of awkward. It's a minor complaint, but it bothered me, and it's the one aspect of the movie that really stuck out for me as a 'problem.' Secondly, knowing that people loved "Iron Man," and Downey as Stark, Universal has spoiled this scene in virtually every TV spot airing lately. I know ads have a tendency to be spoiler-y or misleading, but it's the fucking last scene of the movie. Show some class, for Christ's sake, and don't ruin everything for us.


While I dug it myself, I get that Lee's "Hulk" was too cerebral and slow for what a superhero film is supposed to be, and Leterrier's "Incredible Hulk" is much more conventionally entertaining/satisfying (not to mention a good half hour shorter). To its benefit, Banner's character is in a more interesting place this time around -- knowing what he is and trying to control it -- and we get to see him taking on a relative equal, not just smashing up shit. That said, there's virtually none of that film's visual inventiveness and propensity for experimentation here, but I admit I'm biased; this is a much less strange interpretation so I'm naturally inclined to like it less. The film still takes itself fairly seriously this time around, but the emphasis is more on plot-propelling action than introspection, and there's not necessarily anything wrong with that. Paying proper homage to its source material with a nice moment where Norton tells Lou Ferrigno (cameo-ing as a security guard) "You are the man," while not swinging too far over into "big dumb action" territory, "The Incredible Hulk" is conventional yes, but it's also admittedly satisfying. Those who weren't pleased with what Ang Lee tried to do should dig this, and as someone who was pleased, I enjoyed this as well.


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