The new Marvel Studios is two for two.* Granted, The Incredible Hulk doesn’t have the same personality and joie de vivre that makes Iron Man the most entertaining superhero movie to date. No one is going to fall in love with Ed Norton the way they did Robert Downey, Jr. But this Hulk is exactly the movie it needs to be: a streamlined chase with good effects, impressive action and enough comic references to thrill the fanboys.
Louis Leterrier’s film is the polar opposite of the one launched by Ang Lee five years ago. Rather than looking deep into and between the lines of comic books, a prime reference point is the 1970s television show. Leterrier breezes through the Hulk’s origin as the opening credits roll, aping the show’s introductory sequence. The tone is relatively light, but shy of cartoonish.
We see Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) recklessly experimenting on himself with gamma radiation, girlfriend and co-researcher Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) looking on, and bankroller General ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross (William Hurt) reacting to the result as the Hulk is born again.
Make that Bourne again. The move proper kicks off with a paranoid Banner hiding out in Brazil. He jogs the slums, always looking over his shoulder, trying to control his heart rate. 200 bpm unleashes the beast; I’m guessing he doesn’t go to many raves. Banner is trying to extract a cure from a rare flower, but in the meantime an accident leads General Ross to his location. A strike team led by veteran soldier Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) attempts to capture the fugitive and the first major action sequence kicks into gear with the Hulk in full force.
That’s one thing this movie and Iron Man have in common: both get right to the point. Leterrier barely tries to hide the Hulk, shrouding him briefly in shadow and smoke before letting him break out into the open. That adds to the impression that this is a very lean movie. It isn’t quite. Though shorter than Ed Norton’s more character-oriented cut, this is hardly an 85-minute miniature. But it moves briskly, and like Banner, Leterrier always keeps a finger on the pulse.
Like so many other summer films, this is really just a chain of action sequences. The story beats between are mere linkage. And that’s fine, especially because so little effort is made to disguise the fact. This is a movie about a green guy that growls and smashes things, remember? Leterrier nails the action beats as he allows the Hulk to rip ferociously into both partry military forces and larger targets. I appreciate Ang Lee’s attempt to add depth to the story, but this Hulk feels a lot more like the real green giant to me.
William Hurt takes the basic story as an excuse to simply scowl through the entire movie, which is disappointing. But Liv Tyler has a few excellent moments where she breaks out of mousiness, and Tim Roth looks as if he’s having a hell of a time with Emil Blonsky’s power-crazed persona. Special mention, too, has to go to Tim Blake Nelson as the liveliest actor of the bunch. He’s Samuel Sterns, a slightly hyper, very geeked-out doctor who tries to help Banner’s gamma problem, and Nelson steals every scene with the character. Ground is laid to utilize Sterns in a future movie, and I hope that comes to fruition.
If I had to gripe about anything, I’d complain about the constrained nature of the climactic fight sequence. The runup to the end, in which Blonsky’s desire to become gamma-powerful mirrors Banner’s wish to be rid of the Hulk, is more fun to watch. The limitations of budget and physical sets keep much of the last battle between Hulk and Blonsky’s irradiated alter-ego the Abomination confined to a few city blocks. That’s the place where spectacle should really be unleashed. You’ll find more rampant destruction in the licensed video game.
What you don’t see in a video game, however, is the Hulk’s dispirited shift in expression as he tries to recover from the Abomination’s punches. This is the brutal, singleminded ‘Hulk Smash!’ version of the character, but even he knows that those hits hurt. We know it too, thanks to a fantastic confluence of CGI and sound and film editing. A few dodgy moments aside, these characters feel huge; their actions have both weight and a frightening speed. Leterrier dips into one slow-motion closeup too many, but his sound editors give the fight scenes just the right effect.
The Incredible Hulk is sort of a time capsule. We don’t see summer tentpoles this straightforward any more; everything has to be gaudy and decorated with subtext. In a way, this caps off ten years of escalating summer crap. This is the movie Emmerich’s Godzilla could have been. It augers well for Marvel’s ability to leverage talent and showmanship into a light and satisfying action package. Let’s hope they don’t become over-confident and blow it.
*I wrote this a couple days ago, before Devin published his review and used the same thing in his last paragraph. Screw him, I’m keeping it.