REVIEW: “The Incredible Hulk” (***1/2)

Posted by · 3:30 pm · June 9th, 2008

When Ang Lee set out to direct the first feature film adaptation of Marvel’s Incredible Hulk property five years ago, some things were…different.

Lee was coming off of the major awards success of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” which led audiences – many of them skeptics – to ponder what he might be able to accomplish with the psychology of another action-oriented effort.

However, Marvel had its hands tied. Unlike Detective Comics properties, which fall under Time Warner ownership and therefore receive continual distribution out of Warner Bros. Pictures, Marvel was still at the whims of studio discretion, its properties scattered to the winds despite having the consistency of an Ari Arad behind the scenes.

Nothing could be said less of Lee as a filmmaker when the finished, disastrous product was unveiled. He took a gamble and hit craps…hard. And he bought back in two years later, bouncing back with a Best Director Oscar to show for it. But Marvel was left with a serious consideration that had likely lingered for many years: how to get a developmental handle on a catalogue of material that was bursting at the seams with cinematic potential.

The difference now is Marvel Studios, which saw its first production “Iron Man” held on high by critics and audiences alike just one month ago. It was a home run for an unexplored property on the big screen, but could it be duplicated? And via a franchise that wasn’t nearly far enough removed from it’s immediate past to be considered stale by any means?

Apparently so. Because Louis Leterrier’s “The Incredible Hulk” is not only likely to be the biggest, most exhausting (in all the good ways) film-going experience you’ll have this year, but it also holds the second turtle dove of a young studio’s seizure of what promises to be one of the greatest cinematic roll outs the genre has, or perhaps will ever see.

The opening credits sequence of the film sinks the reboot in with the right clarity, but not so much as to rob you of later revelations. Dr. Bruce Banner, a scientist at a Virginia University, was apparently involved in a biological experiment gone awry and has since hit the road. We catch up with him first thing in a small, sultry Brazilian town as he works below his skill set in a bottling factory while, on the side, attempting to gain some control over his body and the evils within.

But in true Marvel fashion, the real evils are the military industrial complex, and it isn’t finished with Banner, however elusive he has proven himself to be in the five years since the accident.

“As far as I’m concerned that man’s whole body is property of the U.S. army,” growls General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (portrayed with focused intensity by William Hurt).

Ross’s team is joined now by a loose canon, however. Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) is the right man for the right job and for the wrong reasons. He is eager to apprehend Banner, but wonders immediately if the man is a fighter. Blonsky, it seems, loves the thrill of the hunt more than the satisfaction of the capture, and there is a God complex lurking inside the man that ultimately explodes onto the screen in a finale that will surely leave you breathless.

And yeah, the action kicks a breed of ass that is completely unexpected. For all it’s failings, the set pieces of Lee’s film were utterly compelling, despite being few and far between. “Take him on a ride to the top of the world, see how he handles the thin air.” You remember.

But despite consciously pushing the action peddle to the metal in this effort, and therefore breeding suspicion that the filmmakers might overdo it, each set piece is more dazzling than the last. Even the initial Hulk revelation – a complete rip-off of “Batman Begins” – manages to be exciting and fresh through its light-and-shadow glimpses of the character.

Edward Norton is finely attuned to Banner, as he is to most roles he takes on. But interconnectivity of the various characters is left for an undeniable lacking. The love story between Banner and Betsy Ross (Liv Tyler) doesn’t feel forced, for instance, but it nonetheless seems stale and unconvincing at times. Ditto Betsy’s estranged relationship with her father, but perhaps that works given the dynamic.

Hurt digs into Thunderbolt almost as well as Sam Elliot did five years hence, but no one is going to match Elliot for sheer grit, piss and vinegar. He balances a line of showmanship that Jeff Bridges collapsed over in “Iron Man,” however, and that is commendable to say the least.

Tim Roth, meanwhile, is creepily suited to a character that dreams of Promethean fire. He reminds us how lucky we are when he chooses to tackle a role on the screen – which strangely seems a rarity with his string of obscure choices as of late. But to follow up “Youth Without Youth” with something like this and not miss a beat says something about his prowess in front of the camera.

Zak Penn’s screenplay (with assistance from an as always uncredited Norton) manages a number of things on the way to becoming a tightrope walk you’d think destined to fail.

First and foremost — and an obvious subtext from the start — it smartly plants the seeds for the super soldier of Marvel’s Captain America property, the preparations of which are already under way and almost certainly with a mind to avoiding the all-too-apparent pitfalls of the character.

With this in mind – and I hope I’m not the only viewer who recognizes this potential – the story is also treading territory that puts a Wolverine tie-in on the table in a big way. We leave Banner in British Columbia at the end of the film (with what might be a wink to the character’s infamous second stage), so who knows?

The script also understands the necessity of kitsch and the fantastical without losing itself to those notions like we saw in the first and especially third “Spider-Man” installments, to say nothing of a “Fantastic Four” franchise that depends on such things. “The Incredible Hulk” takes itself quite seriously in a focused two-hour sprint through a narrative that can be as dense as it is simplistic. But it knows its roots and how to apply them to the reality of this yarn. We even get a “Hulk smash!” that doesn’t feel as awkward as you might have feared.

Additionally, the script seems to have allowed for separate but equal interpretation of the Lee film, which despite its hordes of detractors has a handful of dedicated forgivers. The 2003 effort could as easily be considered a part of this film’s canon as it could be the separate entity Marvel and Universal Pictures have claimed it to be since the current project’s announcement – a miraculous concept when you really consider it.

Finally, and to take things into specifics, the script manages to breed two villains in the same scene, one that couldn’t possibly have been better balanced. And it is that scene that serves as a microcosm for the film’s recipe. Sometimes you expect too many flavors to screw up the soufflé, but somehow such things just keep WORKING along those lines throughout.

As for the scene in question, let’s hope Tim Blake Nelson would be game

Which brings me to a personal fear that could put a damper on the sights Marvel has obviously set in preparation for an “Avengers” film: are these actors lined up for further commitments? I’m not privy to contract specifics, and maybe the smart route is to leave sequels out of the equation and set “Avengers” up as the sequel to them all, but I hope such specifics have indeed been nailed down. Because the final scene of “The Incredible Hulk,” already popping up in part in television spots, further sells a concept that we already bought in a big way on May 2.

It’s a good time to be a comic book fan. One is left with the anticipation of “The Dark Knight” as almost an expected afterthought of brilliance (unless tragedy has struck Chris Nolan’s creative instincts in the last three years), while “Hellboy 2: The Golden Army” still lurks at the end of the summer, promising to be more thorough and braver than the original. But “The Incredible Hulk” was the question mark weighing heavy in everyone’s minds. And while it might miss with some and perhaps only find itself passable to others, it has stuck the landing for this skeptical viewer in a big, big way.

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14 responses so far

  • 1 6-09-2008 at 4:15 pm

    Brian Kinsley said...

    Hooray! I can’t wait.

  • 2 6-09-2008 at 7:46 pm

    Mr. F said...

    is there a clip after the credits like in “iron man”?

  • 3 6-10-2008 at 6:30 am

    Nick Plowman said...

    I really, really enjoyed this film too, but did not expect to.

  • 4 6-10-2008 at 12:02 pm

    Ali E. said...

    no, there’s no clip after the credits.

    and I found this movie to be quite boring. a (not so realistic) visual effects extravaganza with a weak script. really exhausting…

  • 5 6-11-2008 at 3:15 pm

    Nate said...

    Ali: Realistic? Why do people ever expect the giant green Hulk to appear “realistic”? Or, if you mean subject matter…my question is the same.

    Kris: I enjoyed the review, but I have to ask…you didn’t like Bridges in Iron Man? I felt like the only weak point in his performance was his time inside the suit, but that was only the climax.

  • 6 6-11-2008 at 3:45 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I thought he was fine until he became the “villain.” Everything was downhill from there. “How ironic, Tony!” Worst line of the year. So I guess we agree in a sense, but that climax really shot my opinion of the first three quarters of his portrayal down.

  • 7 6-15-2008 at 1:26 am

    Dan said...

    Kris, how could this movie be anything but ‘passable’ to you? There was nothing special about this movie. It was utterly bland. Come on now….

  • 8 6-16-2008 at 7:13 pm

    Joel said...

    I really enjoyed this film, as well, Kris. I think I agree with you about everything except the star rating–I would give *** not ***1/2. If we were grading this with letters, yours would be an A-, it appears, and mine would be a B+.

    Ali: Don’t stretch it. This isn’t supposed to be realistic; it’s supposed to be fun. Check your critic’s brain at the door.

    All in all, this was WAY better than Ang Lee’s disaster in 2003, which was why I was worried about it. But I think that Tim Roth was superb as the villain, Ed Norton (as always) fantastic as Banner, and I also thought that it was unusually well directed. Something about Leterrier’s style reminded me of Greengrass with the Bourne pictures. Somewhat documentary, if not “Cloverfield”/”24” level, a little more slick than that. It was really well done.

  • 9 6-27-2008 at 2:11 am

    Billy said...

    You will see many more movies like the new Hulk, but will never see another like the old Hulk. And that sucks cause the old hulk was much more adult oriented and epic.

  • 10 8-13-2008 at 9:35 pm

    Andrew said...

    Are you kidding me? Did you really like this film?’re american. Right.

  • 11 8-13-2008 at 9:54 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Stupid comment.

  • 12 12-30-2008 at 7:10 am

    rehaan khan said...

    i am 9 years old,i like hulk,beacause the image of hulk is great & wonderful.

    rehaan khan