Review: “The Incredible Hulk”

Not the home run that they hit the first time around with “Iron Man”, this second effort of the new Marvel Studios is good enough that it fixes some of the key problems brought up by Ang Lee’s generally dismissed first attempt at adapting Hulk for the big screen.

Despite a lot of outright hostility towards it these days, the 2003 “Hulk” remains a textbook example of a noble failure. Superhero movies are like the James Bond franchise – variations on the same formula. Those that truly succeed push the boundaries, but also stick to and make best use of certain pre-set structural rules. Lee’s “Hulk” abandoned them altogether, crafting an odd blend of morose ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ melodrama and ridiculously flamboyant action-fantasy antics. Visually it was bold, even innovative, but in terms of storytelling it was a fascinating jumbled mess – distant, bloated, ambitious, arty and often impenetrable.

In contrast Louis Letterier and Edward Norton’s new incarnation of the green meanie has no such lofty ideals or hidden depths. This ‘Hulk’ is designed purely for fast, formulaic mainstream thrills by mixing a chase thriller across the Americas with a few key set pieces of Hulk smashing up things. It’s derivative to be sure, various scenes cribbing off better efforts of the genre along with other recent hits, but the script balances its disparate elements enough to likely satisfy fans.

It may be more of a crowd-pleaser, but that certainly doesn’t make the new ‘Hulk’ a roaring success. At 106 minutes its quite short and sharp, yet there’s some awkward lulls in the pacing and very notable gaps in the logic and story. On several occasions some almost savage editorial cuts throw you out of the film’s flow, yet each of the three big action scenes with the creature are dragged out several minutes longer than is needed – and in doing so it lessens their impact.

The first and strongest act by far may as well be called “The Bourne Irradiation” with Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) hiding out as an employee of a bottling plant in the mountain-side slums of Brazil. The ensuing half-hour has him researching his condition, chatting online with a mysterious source called Mr. Blue, and generally outrunning bad guys through a maze of alleyways and rooftops. The superb cinematography makes great use of the location, turning the rainforest-enclosed makeshift city into an eerily beautiful yet sinister place.

It also works because it smartly sets up the situation, taking time to learn Banner’s motives and actions to control his Hulk-side both in the long and short term. The film certainly requires foreknowledge of the character and his relationships as the origin element, very different to Lee’s “Hulk”, is hastily skipped through during the opening credits. What sells us though is Norton delivering his usual committed work as a much more proactive and sympathetic Bruce Banner than Eric Bana’s tortured geek or Bill Bixby’s mix of camp and anal retention.

It’s not a definitive performance by any means for a superhero character, much less the actor, but its lends enough credibility to balance out the various underwritten supporting roles that surround him. Of those Liv Tyler fares the best, her more comfortably-paced scenes with Norton during the middle of the movie providing a much needed breather between the increasingly bombastic quick-cut set pieces that devolve into the final videogame-like brawl.

Tim Blake Nelson’s brief role as a scientist and potential future villain is an ultra-goofy letdown, a stark contrast to Ty Burrell’s quietly strong but painfully slim and muted role as Betty’s current love interest (he’s in such few scenes that this relationship to her is never made clear). The usually reliable likes of William Hurt and Tim Roth disappoint as they overplay their one-dimensional villains of the piece into pure ham territory – Hurt at least seems to be having fun though, despite a few notable character inconsistencies.

In regards to the action it’s Hulk’s first appearance that is the most creative. Time is taken to build up to it, and for the most part he’s kept in shadow where he terrorises his potential captors from the dark corners within the plant. Subsequent rampages across a college campus and the streets of Harlem become increasingly silly, over-edited, and too reliant on the adept but uninspiring visual effects which trade quality for sheer quantity. Skin texturing may have improved drastically since the last Hulk, but the character still looks like a big cartoonish sprite – at least this time they keep his size consistent.

The film does do a good job with the niggling flaw of the clothing shifts, Norton spending much of the film half-naked clutching the remnants of some much-abused pants. The scant humor is well-placed, only one joke really misfiring, whilst the cameos by the aforementioned Ferrigno, Marvel stalwart Stan Lee, and a certain fellow superhero are by far the most clever yet for a Marvel film. A lot of references are also made to a WW2-developed serum and ‘Super Soldier’ program, hinting about a certain Captain appearing in the near future.

It’ll be interesting to see how this is received as with superhero movies we’ve become used to a mix of stellar efforts that transcend their pulpy origins (Spider-Man 2, Batman Begins, Iron Man), good intentioned but sadly flat disappointments of different calibers (Superman Returns, the first Hulk, Spider-Man 3), and just plain awful wastes of space (Fantastic Four, Ghost Rider, Elektra). This incarnation of “Hulk” fits none of these categories, rather it settles on being good enough for its fans and a decent enough actioneer for the rest of us.

There’s a definite feeling of a much longer and more substantial movie in here which has been truncated, and talk of Edward Norton’s unhappiness with the final product is understandable if many of the deeper character scenes have been left on the editing room floor. What remains, though certainly not the dud many were expecting, is not good enough to justify the need for such a restart. Unless you’re a fan, the new ‘Hulk’ isn’t one to rush out for, but it is worth catching eventually.