Sunday, June 22, 2008

Movie Review: The Incredible Hulk

...Well, that was a lot more fun that I'd imagined at the beginning of the summer when I gave old Hulk 2 a mere "4" on my Summer Movie Excite-O-Meter. "Incredible Hulk," the not-really-a-sequel to Ang Lee's 2003 version, is mostly jolly green superhero smashing fun, even if it's a bit rough around the edges. It's no "Iron Man," but that's hardly an insult.

Ang Lee's widely maligned "Hulk" flick was probably the most disappointing movie of the decade so far for me. Lee's created some genius movies, but him and "Hulk" were a confused non-starter that had moments of beauty but a heck of a lot of incoherence and ponderous psychobabble. So "Incredible Hulk" automatically starts out with some bad will, and to top it off reports of a troubled production. Given all the debits, it's a qualified success.

Director Louis Letterier kind of assembles a grab-bag of "Hulk" lore – he scoops up a fair bit of the "Hulk" '70s TV show, a smattering of classic and modern comics bits, and a hint of "Godzilla" towards the end. The movie feels a little choppy, not sure if it's a character-based drama or a summer-action flick (it fails to combine the two near-seamlessly like the best "Spider-Man" or "Iron Man" have done). But it rarely stumbles completely.

PhotobucketTHE PROS: Edward Norton is a solid actor and takes on the role of Bruce Banner well, with a jittery paranoia combined with a steel spine underneath (I never liked the Banner-as-helpless-geek portrayal). You really get the sense of a man wrestling with a kind of addiction, and it's a measure of Norton's talent that I actually enjoyed the scenes with him more than the Hulk ones.

Speaking of Hulk, the computer effects have definitely improved a lot in five years, but how much you "buy" the Hulk's realism depends on exactly how "real" a 7-foot-tall green giant can be. There's a gritty texture to the new Hulk that makes him feel more real than Lee's Gumby. Although, in the final bash-and-crash showdown with his evil doppleganger the Abomination, it all turned into a rubbery CGI overload. The best scene with the Hulk is actually the quietest one, a rainy post-battle interlude in a cave with Betty Ross that achieves a kind of "Frankenstein"-esque poetry.

I always love Tim Roth (the best thing about the awful "Planet Of The Apes" remake a while back), and he's a sneering, cocky delight as Emil Blonsky, the aging soldier who lusts for Hulk-style power. Again, though, when he gets all computer-enhanced he actually becomes a lot less interesting as a character. So it goes, I guess.

Even though he's a minor role, Tim Blake Nelson ("O Brother Where Art Thou?") is a scene-stealer as the addled genius scientist Samuel Stearns, who "Hulk"-o-philes know ends up a major Hulk villain himself, the uber-intelligent The Leader. That future is set up nicely here.

This one's definitely higher on Hulk-smashing action than Lee's slow burning film, and some of it is great – a big showdown on a college campus is the highlight, but I also really enjoyed the Hulk's spooky, shadow-enshrouded debut in a Brazilian bottle factory (and I have to say, the whole Brazilian slums setting at the start of the movie is beautifully realized chaos).

PhotobucketTHE CONS: Liv Tyler doesn't embarrass herself, exactly, but she's merely OK as Betty Ross and you never for one millisecond buy her as a cellular biologist. I would've liked to see Jennifer Connelly return in the role from "Hulk," actually -- her and Norton would've been good together. William Hurt is decent as General Thunderbolt Ross, although I felt him straining to recreate the comic character's blustering bravado.

I've never seen any of director Letterier's other action-kung fu type movies -- but I have to admit I found the editing kind of choppy, "Bourne Identity"-homaging fast cuts that often distracted from the action unfolding. The final battle scenes were a lot less engaging than I'd hoped they'd be. Indeed, in the last half-hour you can really feel the editing scissors were at work here (a rumored 40-50 minutes of footage were cut from the original movie, it seems, in a move to "action it up" a notch). Also, while the Hulk clashes are quite violent, it's all rather bloodless – you have to imagine dozens die during the course of this movie, but you never really feel it. I don't think a hard "R"-rated "Hulk" would work either for the character, but the lack of consequences for most of the rampaging kind of takes away some of the picture's punch.

I'd say this inches up into the "quite good" range of Marvel comics flicks (in other words, up there with the first "X-Men" movie but not quite "Spider-Man 2" or "Iron Man" range). Worth seeing on the big screen if you're a "Hulk" fan to get all the impact. Grade: B

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