Five not-so-long years have passed since Ang Lee’s Hulk, which grossed $245 million worldwide, but “only” $132 million Stateside, since I guess it irked comic book fans with its Shakespearean undertones and lack of “Hulk smash!” forthrightness. This time studio executives seem to have actually read the screenplay — by frequent superhero scripter Zak Penn (Elektra, X-Men: The Last Stand) — upon which the production is based, and the result is a very standard summer actioner that delivers reasonably well, if straight down the middle, on audience expectations.
After the obligatory experiment-gone-terribly-wrong credits montage, set to pulse-pounding music, The Incredible Hulk opens in exotic Brazil, where on-the-lam scientist Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) is working at an energy drink bottling plant as low-key hired help. It’s been five-plus months “without incident,” and Banner has training with breathing and relaxation exercises to control the gamma radiation poisoning that turns him into a not-so-jolly green giant when he becomes overly excited, angry or stressed. He’s also been working to cure himself, consulting via encrypted web chat with a doctor (Tim Blake Nelson) who advises him of potential natural remedies. The secret of his location leaks out, though, and Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (a mustachioed William Hurt, chewing cigars if, pleasantly, not scenery), the Army general who oversaw the experiment that triggered the changes in Banner, sets out to find him, hoping to harness Banner’s Hulkian rage for military application. Spearheading Ross’ team is Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), a Royal Marine apparently “on loan” from the United Kingdom.
Despite the significant manpower dispatched to bring him in, Banner escapes and makes his way back to the States, where he finds out his ex-girlfriend and fellow Culver University colleague Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), also Thunderbolt’s daughter, has taken up with a new guy. Ross the senior commands a new squadron to capture Banner, but also gives Blonsky a dose of “super soldier” juice, which only whets his appetite for a bigger taste of what Banner has. Explosions and more battles ensue; Banner, as the Hulk, escapes one showdown, but not another. As he’s being helicoptered off, however, Blonsky’s souped-up alter ego, Abomination, goes on a Rampage-style… well, rampage, and, hand forced, General Ross lets the Hulk do his thing.
Directed by Louis Leterrier — who brought a level of hand-crafted kick to the two Transporter films, starring Jason Statham — The Incredible Hulk hits all its beats, in both story and action, fairly dutifully. Norton is certainly fine, if a bit gangly, which the movie pokes small fun at in a scene or two. Roth and Hurt underplay what could have been much more snarlingly over-the-top characters, and Tyler bats her eyes in fine, dewy fashion. All of this slow-pitch character work serves as counterpoint to the mountingly aggressive action, with the exception being Nelson’s awestruck scientist, who comes across a bit unhinged.
The CGI special effects work is nicely shaded, and there always seems to be a rainfall and/or full moon to help show off the Hulk’s musculature. On that note, the Hulk’s skin — still like a leathery potato — is perhaps a bit darker than in Ang Lee’s film, but he still never seems much worse the wear for all the bullets, splinters and tranquilizer darts he takes, which feeds a bit of shrugging indifference with the entire affair if one cares about such a thing as a legitimate sense of imperilment.
Leterrier is set loose to get his foot-pursuit action ya-yas out in a parkour-style rooftop chase that very much summons to mind The Bourne Ultimatum, but the rest of the movie, including a finale in which the Hulk and Abomination lay waste to an entire city block, is very much about Hulk (and Abomination) tossing things about and pounding the holy hell out of one another. In fact, if the Hulk had Internet access and could bookmark his favorite web sites, at the top of the list would surely be CarsAsBoxingGloves.com.
This is all fine and well — the movie’s spell is brief, but harmless. But like a lot of superhero movies, though, The Incredible Hulk reaches a point of pulsing, ultimate stupidity, when it runs out of sensible narrative motivation and then has to figure out a way to cram in a big action, rock-’em, sock-’em showdown regardless. That moment occurs here about 15 minutes from the finale, when Banner convinces General Ross to turn around the helicopter they’re on (above) so that he can fight Abomination. To… I don’t know, save time, he decides to free-fall plummet from several thousand feet. “You don’t have to do this — you don’t even know if you’ll change!” says Betty to Banner. (Given what else the movie has taught us, in the form of an aborted love scene, it makes just as much sense that she should jack him off before he jumps.)
But no, merely because it’s “dramatic,” the movie gives us a lingering kiss between the pair, and then a tumble. Banner hurtles through the air and then smashes down onto the asphalt below, where he emerges from the rubble as the Hulk. Wait… what? So he fully transformed the exact moment before he hit the concrete? Or since he’s the Hulk, Banner too is impervious to injury? I know, I know… who cares. But by cheating on the effects shots that would have explained this very important detail, one is painfully reminded just how entirely fabricated this flung-together set-up and, by extension, this entire finale, is. From there, as the videogame smash-up unfolds before your eyes, the Hulk even learns to talk, if seemingly only to counter the taunting Abomination. Oh, and so that he can deliver his signature line: “Hulk… smash!” Yes, indeed, Hulk, yes indeed. (Universal/Marvel, PG-13, 112 minutes)