Sunday, June 15, 2008

Review - The Incredible Hulk

The Hulk is back! And this time he's...well, he's still pretty angry. It seems five years has been long enough for the dust to settle on Ang Lee's ill-conceived Hulk, and now Marvel, in their second production as an independent studio, has decided to try a fresh approach to the character. Lee always felt like an odd choice to direct a summer blockbuster – his interest in character and subtle emotions apparently at odds with the explosive demands of the genre – and the resulting film was an interesting failure that was met with little more than a shoulder-shrugging reaction from critics and the public alike. The Incredible Hulk, directed by Louis Leterrier, is a film far more likely to find favour with the masses, being a slicker and more action-oriented take on the story, but the reinstatement of the word "Incredible" into the title is something of a misnomer. The Adequate Hulk or The Not As Bad As Expected Hulk would be more appropriate.

The Incredible Hulk is a sort-of sequel to Lee's film. It's set five years after the events of that picture, and it opens with Bruce Banner (Edward Norton, replacing Eric Bana) on the run from the US government, but we are encouraged to disregard the earlier instalment with the details of his accident being altered and squeezed in under the opening credits. Bruce is currently living in a sprawling Brazilian favela (first depicted in an breathtaking establishing shot) and trying to maintain a low profile. It has been 158 days since his last "incident", and while Bruce spends his days working in a bottling plant, he fills his spare time with meditation, learning Portuguese ("Don't make me hungry, you wouldn't like me when I'm hungry" he warns one confused local), and striving to find a cure for the monster that lurks inside him. Despite his best efforts to remain incognito, Bruce can't hide from General Ross (William Hurt), the father of his former love Betty, who suddenly turns up at his door along with Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth, having fun), a tough SAS commando who rather fancies a dose of Hulkiness for himself. Blonsky is described as half-British and half-Russian, which is like a perfect storm of Hollywood villainy.

Leterrier is a straight-ahead action director, and he doesn't share Lee's interest in exploring the tormented psyche of Bruce Banner, instead preferring to focus on action and incident. The resulting film is arguably more enjoyable than Lee's
Hulk, but it's also a much less ambitious and interesting piece of work. The opening Brazil-set section of the picture displays the best aspects of Leterrier's direction. He builds a great chase sequence through the backstreets between Banner and Blonsky's gun-toting troops, before we get our first glimpse of the titular beast. That's all we get at this stage – a glimpse – as Hulk charges through the shadows and hurls various large chunks of scenery at Blonsky's beleaguered men. The decision to keep our views of Hulk at a minimum is a wise one, and the film never again achieves the kind of suspense and excitement that is generated in this early set-piece.

After Bruce awakes far from the scene of the incident and drags his weary body away to the nearest town, he heads back to the US to find the data from his original exposure. He also finds Betty (Liv Tyler) in a relationship with another man, and he runs into General Ross once again, with a souped-up Blonsky ready for round two. The ensuing clash is loud and frantic, but Leterrier doesn't really do anything imaginative with it, he just keeps ramping up the volume.
The Incredible Hulk becomes more predictable after this point, and while it's never really boring – Leterrier keeps the pacing fluid throughout – there's nothing particularly exciting about the various action sequences and trite dramatic interludes that the film comprises of.

Norton, whose clashes with the studio have been well documented, is solid in the leading role. He does as much as he can to express Banner's inner conflict, although Zak Penn's screenplay – on which Norton did a lot of uncredited work – doesn't like going down those avenues. It does throw up a couple of little character touches that I enjoyed, though. There's a running gag about Banner's never-ending search for suitably stretchy pants, and a scene in which he has to refuse sex with Betty because too much excitement might cause his alter-ego to appear at an inopportune moment (now
there's something for the sequel!). Despite these efforts to add a few extra shades to Banner's character, The Incredible Hulk falls prey to a familiar problem, which is perhaps an insurmountable one for any cinematic depiction of this particular superhero. Whenever Banner transforms he ceases to be Banner and simply becomes a CGI creation, and it's impossible to reconcile the two. The Hulk depicted here is a little less cartoon-like than the "Shrek on steroids" that rampaged through Lee's film, but it's still a pretty unconvincing proposition, and neither big-screen version of this character has had the impact that Lou Ferrigno and a tin of green paint could bring to the part. The TV Hulk might have been a huge, snarling green man, but at least we could recognise that he was once a man.

As such, the final battle between Hulk and the creature Blonsky transforms into (he kind of looks like a plastic Hulk who's been left sitting on the radiator) is a crushing bore. The two CGI beasties turn over cars, throw each other through buildings and do all of the standard things eight-foot tall monsters do when they get together on a weekend. It all feels utterly empty and pointless, and an interesting comparison can be made with the climax of Marvel's other big summer movie Iron Man. That picture also climaxed in an unimaginative fashion, with the two main characters slugging it out in robotic suits, but Favreau kept reminding us that Robert Downey Jr. and Jeff Bridges were inside those suits, and that was enough to keep us focused on their fight.
The Incredible Hulk can't do that, and the climax eventually peters out in a baffling fashion before Leterrier starts dropping heavy hints about the sequel. That sequel is pretty much inevitable because The Incredible Hulk is a film that gives the fans what they want – it listened to the criticisms levelled at Ang Lee's Hulk and vowed to avoid the same pitfalls – but that fear has produced a generic and ultimately forgettable movie. The last-minute reference to Iron Man only reminded me how much wittier and smarter that picture was, while nothing the picture had to offer was as exciting as the trailer for The Dark Knight that ran before the show. Yes, the standards are high for comic book movies these days, and a middle-of-the-road effort like The Incredible Hulk simply doesn't measure up.