HULK SMASH!! Spoiler-free Review

June 14, 2008 at 4:04 pm 2 comments

From the outset, Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk was written off as an impending failure by fans and critics. The stigma of Ang Lee’s Hulk from 2003 hung over this new version like a storm cloud. But fans, and Edward Norton especially, can rest assured; this latest franchise re-boot is every bit as exciting as your typical summer blockbuster should be.

I’m one of the few who think that Ang Lee’s version was a very flawed, but interesting film. When Marvel and Universal announced that the Oscar-nominated director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was going to direct the silver-screen version of Marvel’s jolly green giant, many fans were left wondering what kind of movie would it be. Sure enough, what Lee gave us was a movie that was thick with metaphors and subtext, but plagued with a muddled plot, a thirty-minutes-too-long runtime, and confusing action scenes. What I think Ang Lee was going for was to show, internally and externally, what makes Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Eric Bana) tick.

Eric Bana as Bruce Banner

But here’s where Lee missed the boat. The Hulk is an emotion-driven character, rage is what triggers him. What Lee tried to show us was more internal conflict that manifests itself physically, then he tries to one-up himself (and hopefully the audience) by showing us more internal conflict while the external stuff is happening. Basically, the Hulk as fans and casual movie-goers know him is like the inside-out version of Banner. Banner gets angry, he turns into the Hulk and the Hulk proceeds to smash things. Ang Lee gave us a Hulk that tried to represent physical and emotional rage, and it become way too confusing and artsy for its own good.

Fast-foward five years later. Louis Letterier, a known action director with some hits under his belt (Transporter 2, Unleashed) and Edward Norton, considered to be one of the finest actors of his generation sign on to do, what was thought to be a sequel to Hulk. It turns out that The Incredible Hulk is a complete re-working of the franchise that discards practically everything Ang Lee’s movie had built. And thank God for it.

The Incredible Hulk drops the audience into the middle of the adventure. Bruce Banner (Norton) is already exposed to gamma rays which cause him to transform into the Hulk when his heart rate goes above 200. He’s on the run from U.S. Army general Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt), who initiated the gamma ray experiment. Hiding out in South America, Banner covertly works on a cure with the long-distance aid of a Mr. Blue while doing menial day labor at a soda bottling factory. Sure enough, his cover is blown and General Ross arrives with a Special Forces unit to apprehend Banner. This Spec Ops unit is led by Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) a British commando on loan to U.S. Special Operations Command specifically for this mission.

This whole first act, with Banner in South America, really helps set the tone for the rest of the movie. Screenwriter Zak Penn, with assistance from Edward Norton, craft a screenplay that focuses on what makes the dual character of Bruce Banner/The Hulk great: make Banner mad, you have to deal with the Hulk. There are some great homages to the 1970’s Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno tv show sprinkled throughout the film. My favorite is when you see Banner change into the Hulk; all you see are Banner’s eyes highlighted, while everything else is in shadow. That’s straight from the 70’s show, along with the familiar piano theme. Also, Bixby has a very small cameo in the beginning and Ferrigno not only plays a security guard but is also the voice of the Hulk himself.

I found both Hurt and Roth great as the villains of the story. Hurt’s Gen. Ross wants Banner so he can extract Hulk and use it as a weapon, and maybe to create more of them. Blonsky just want to beat the Hulk and prove that he’s the best soldier alive. Actually, the whole time I’m watching this, I kept thinking of Konami’s Metal Gear video game series. Many of the characters (like Big Boss and Liquid Snake) are obsessed with the art of warfare and strive to become the greatest soldier that ever lived. What Blonsky realizes is that his body will deteriorate with age, while his mind may be able to stay sharp. Blonsky then becomes obsessed with becoming like the Hulk and not just beating him.

Live Tyler’s Betsy Ross, the daughter of Gen. Ross, is serviceable here. I liken her to Gwenyth Paltrow’s turn as Pepper Potts: neither of them sucked at the role, but they didn’t really bring anything to it, either. Maybe it’s a script issue, I don’t know. There is a nice little scene with Betsy running into the rain to find Bruce, and while it is a cliche scene, it tries to bring some emotional depth to the movie. Also, I have to say something about Banner. While I liked Edward Norton’s portrayal of Banner, he’s not nearly as fun to watch a Robert Downy, Jr. in Iron Man, making this movie more ‘serious’ than last month’s Marvel action spectacular.

The last act is where The Incredible Hulk truly shines, as it should. The whole movie was really just a set up to a smackdown fight between Hulk and Abomination, a larger and stronger version of Hulk. The two literally wreck a good part of Manhattan while pummeling each other. What makes this fight work so well is that you can truly see, and feel, the physical manifestation of Banner’s/Hulk’s rage. Abomination is a threat not just to New York City and all the innocent people, but a threat to Betsy, the woman Banner loves.

There is a moment where the general, Betsy, and Bruce are watching Abomination wreck downtown Manhattan, and they know conventional firearms will have practically no effect in stopping it. Banner suggests transforming into Hulk to stop Abomination, but everyone questions it. Is Hulk strong enough to fight this thing? Banner says something to the effect of channeling Hulk, aiming him in the right direction. This is what Ang Lee missed. Lee mis-channeled the Hulk. All this movie did was point the Hulk and all the rage and fury he represents at the enemy and watch the debris fly. The final fight is immensely satisfying, and it even hits on more basic, emotional levels. I found myself gripping the armrests of my seat, wanting to mimic Hulk’s punches as the two over-powered beings just thrash each other. It is quite the epic fight.

The special effects are nice, but there are times when it looked too much like a video game. There were a few times when the abundance of CG took me out of the movie, but then there were a few times when it really drew me in. The first scene with Betsy and the Hulk is really tender one where Hulk channels his rage and suspicion to protect her. It was a nice blend of live-action and CG that could have been a total misfire.. The sound deserves special mention because this is a really loud movie. Guns, explosion, dialogue, cars, are come through clearly and with theatre-shaken results. What really impressed me about the sound happens toward the end, with some really impressive and even scary roars coming from Hulk and Abomination. I haven’t been this awed by a roar since Simba stood atop Pride Rock and let everyone in the pride lands know he just laid the greatest smackdown in lion history on his uncle.

What I must also mention is the much-hyped cameo of Tony Stark in the movie. If you saw the hidden scene at the end of the credits of Iron Man, this is pretty much the same thing, only with Downey Jr. replacing Samuel L. Jackson. Stark swaggers into a bar, where a depressed General Ross is drinking himself away and offers him a chance to join a ‘special team’ that Stark is helping put together. I’m not saying that it’s a throw-away scene, but seeing this really gets me thinking about how Marvel and Universal are handling these properties. This isn’t some trick to get more people into the theatres (“What? Iron Man is in the new Hulk movie? I gotta go see this!”), but a genuine live-action version of Marvel’s comic book adventures.

All the Marvel characters inhabit the same world, the New York City of Spider-man is the same as the NYC of Daredevil. While I don’t think all the Marvel superheros will be appearing in one movie (different studios hold the distribution rights for different characters), it’s nice to know that all the ones Marvel Studios has in its stable will one day join forces (2011, I believe). It’s a genuine collaborative effort not just on the production side with Marvel Studios, but on the fictional side as well, with Nick Fury slowly assembling The Avengers for their much anticipated movie debut. Hmm…maybe if Marvel Studios bought back all their respective properties, it could lead to an ensemble movie of epic proportions.

The Incredible Hulk continues the trend of smash hit Marvel adaptations (well, maybe Ghost Rider wasn’t that big of a hit). It’s impressive on nearly all fronts and there’s enough to thrill the average movie audience as well as the most die-hard fans of the comic books.

8.5/10

(images from Yahoo!)

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Laurelai  |  June 16, 2008 at 5:08 pm

    Well said. I know we’ve had this discussion before, but if we ever do a podcast, it would be the most boring thing ever. We agree on so much.

    There is one thing I want to disagree with you on. Liv Tyler sucked as Betty Ross. Sure, a variable of a plainly written character added to an actress that doesn’t give much to it almost ALWAYS equals total paper bag of suck. Liv Tyler’s approach to acting is to cry her eyes out in every single role. She’s completely one-dimensional. She’s beautiful, however, the face is not always what makes the actress.

    Reply
  • 2. patrick  |  June 19, 2008 at 12:42 pm

    this new Incredible Hulk is a lot more fun than the first one with Eric Bana; plus you can’t beat Ed Norton when he’s in his element, doing the the “split personality” role

    Reply

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