Monday, July 23, 2012

A Frank Review of "The Incredible Hulk" (2008)

The Short Version? Hulk II: The Quickening
What Is It? Super-hero action/drama
Who Is In It? Derek Vinyard, Arwen, Arkady Renko, Mr. Orange, Delmar O'Donnell, Phil Dunphy
Should I See It? Yes.

The Incredible Hulk was the second movie released by Marvel Studios, arriving just over a month after Iron Man. That meant it was overshadowed by the blockbuster of the summer, and by the stigma attached through its Universal Studios predecessor, which was commercially successful but broadly disliked. Given that the Hulk was well established in pop culture, it made sense for him to be tapped, but hoops had to be jumped through to get the property away from Universal. The neophyte studio made mistakes along the way, including getting bullied by star Edward Norton, who made his own rewrites and later refused to do any press for the flick. Iron Man surely cannibalized Incredible Hulk's audience, and with no Marvel Studios movies released in 2009, it could have better benefited from the Tony Stark good will tour by being pushed back. At least 2011's Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger had a few months' breathing room. As a result, The Incredible Hulk is something of a bastard stepchild, the least loved of the movies leading into The Avengers.

Like the '70s television series, Hulk owes as much of a debt to The Fugitive as to the comics. The first act of the film takes place in Brazil, where Dr. Bruce Banner hides out at a bottling factory while working to control his rage. It takes about a half hour for the beast to finally appear, and then again for the reappearance. The film is at its most effective in this phase, as director Louis Leterrier is playing to his strengths. The action is very well choreographed, and the primacy of prey escaping hunters taps into the adrenal gland. There's some melodrama mixed in that's less affective, but strong casting buoys what could have been silly segments. There is a strong feeling of never getting the whole story, though. The film isn't really a sequel Ang Lee's 2003 version, and there are too many elements from the comics and cartoons to work as a TV show follow-up. Pity the completely uninitiated, who have to settle for an oblique smash cut origin sequence during the credits. Also, the majority of the geek-baiting cameos occur early in, so I'm sure some were puzzled by left field giggles and pointing.

The movie peaks at around the hour mark, during a confrontation between the Hulk and an army unit led by General Ross. Everything works here, from Banner's foiled escape attempt to the Hulk's more successful collateral inducing one. Escalation is the key, as troops chase Banner, Banner Hulks out, various new technologies are employed, and the Hulk struggles to overcome them. One soldier, Emil Blonsky, has been exposure to a variation on the Super Soldier Serum, and offers dazzling combat acrobatics that made me so hopeful that the Captain America movie would get them right. Those hopes were ultimately dashed, but it was still a thrill to see the types of Cap/Hulk confrontations I enjoyed in my youth reading comics transplanted to and improved on celluloid. It doesn't hurt that this CGI Hulk is clearly modeled on the late '70s/early '80s comics most familiar to readers of my generation.

The movie falters in the second hour, as there's too little depth to Banner's struggle. Besides being on the run and Betty making his green balls blue, Bruce has a pretty good handle on his condition. There are no redneck truckers instigating a diner smash-up, and it literally takes an army to get a rise out of the Hulk. Betty doesn't show any fidelity to her boyfriend of half a day earlier either, as she happily hops back onto the Banner express. Transportation isn't even a problem as the pair hightail it up to New York to visit a scientist who has been clandestinely aiding Banner over the internet. The plus side is that the plot doesn't get bogged down with side trips, but the minus is that it all comes a bit too easily for the modestly put out Doctor Banner. Then the contrivances kick in to effect the creation of the Abomination, allowing the Hulk a comparable creature to trade blows with for the last twenty minutes. An effort is made to find ways of keeping that fight entertaining, but the rubbery CGI and funky Abomination design undermines them. There's a rush to wrap-up as well that diminishes any potential emotional resonance, but then again, that's par for the theatrical cut of the movie.

I don't think I'll ever get past Adrian Brody as my ideal fan casting for Bruce Banner. I'm a fan of Ed Norton, and hoped he was up for the job, but he's clearly more of a fan of the show than the comics. Like most Stan Lee creations, the character is metaphorical. Banner is supposed to be scrawny, meek, trapped in his head and divorced from his heart. Ed Norton's demonstrably attractive Banner is even more well adjusted than Eric Bana's. He handles his anger normally, and he seems to have a healthy relationship with Betty Ross and the world in general. It doesn't make sense that this guy would have an uncontrollable rage monster unleashed by gamma experiments. He's just a bright, well meaning guy stuck with a major lifestyle alteration.

On the other hand, Liv Tyler is the best Betty I could have hoped for. She's sweet and caring and drawn to intellectuals diametrically opposed to her father. At the same time, she has the inner strength and occasional aggression necessary to direct and protect her scientist loves. You could see her falling for the comic book Banner, and she would be irresistible to most anyone else.

I couldn't image anyone better physically personifying Thunderbolt Ross than Sam Elliott, and certainly had my doubts about his being replaced. Color me surprised when William Hurt absolutely won me over with a pitch perfect performance in the role. Elliott was comparatively too much of a calculated charming, where the General needs to be a relentless take-no-prisoners son of a bitch as seen here. Hurt embodies gruffness and contempt for civilian concerns.

Tim Roth is Tim Roth, as usual, but his Tim Rothness as Blonsky works. He also pulls off some solid stunts. Tim Blake Nelson is a cornball Samuel Sterns, making me concerned about any potential sequel appearances. Ty Burrell is solid as Leonard Samson though, so he'd be welcome.

The rule of threes applied to Hulk casting, as proved in The Avengers. Mark Ruffalo brought a winning neurotic passivity barely concealing a lust for destruction, not to mention excellent chemistry with his co-stars. Ed Norton was a decent enough Bruce Banner, but unlikely to ever reprise the role. I think that from direction to writing to cast, The Incredible Hulk got enough right that with a new lead and evolving threats, most everyone involved with this production would serve the next well. The flick may not sustain through to the end, but it is entertaining and fast paced enough to recommend and offer hope for a more potent follow-up.


  • Alternate Opening This scene was referenced in The Avengers, and worked better as such. I suppose the limitations of a PG-13 insisted that it not be clear what Banner was getting up to, and the delayed Hulk-out works better in the film.
  • Deleted Scenes There's practically a second movie here, or at least a spin-off special. I think it was wise to excise the material, because the tone and pacing of the movie would have been damagingly compromised otherwise. There are little seen movie characters with entire arcs though, especially Leonard Samson. Very insightful.
  • The Making of Incredible A half hour devoted to showing what an accomplishment the production of the movie was. It impresses.
  • Becoming The Hulk Focus on the acting and CGI. I do think they did a good job on the face and overall design.
  • Becoming the Abomination Not a fan of the design. I understand the need for a reworking, but the bones are too Doomsday, and the exposure makes him look vulnerable. That said, Tim Roth and the mo-cap team kicked ass.
  • Anatomy of a Hulk-Out Three featurettes, one for each of the major Hulk scenes. They're long and extraneous, plus they highlight where the movie peters out. The first is on the Brazil shooting, which emphasizes how scary and dangerous the location was. That came through in the flick, but so did that slight hesitation that comes with professionals knowing they're close to a real edge. The second feature is on the campus battle, which was the most joyous and inventive balls out action. After all the real world trials, the third focuses on computer geeks doing cartoon fights. They were good rubber animation battles, but not really comparable to the previous spectacle.
  • From Comic Book To Screen I was hoping that this would be a comic doc, but instead it's a Hulk: Gray motion comic with obnoxious panel progressions and no spoken dialogue.
  • Feature Commentary Louis Leterrier's accent is amusing and he does most of the talking. Tim Roth as his partner seems a bit odd, but the bad blood between Marvel and Ed Norton probably limited the options. There's a lot of talking, and some of it is informative, but there's still noticeable avoidance in the conversation.

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