Incredible Hulk, The (2008)

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 06/21/08 16:07:05

"The best Marvel movie yet? Incredible."
5 stars (Awesome)

“The Incredible Hulk” is one of the great monster movies, exciting and scary and sad all at once. Perhaps by coincidence it comes from Universal Studios, who gave us Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man; now comes the Hulk, who is given a cinematic adventure loaded with monsters, mad scientists, mysterious experiments, power-hungry soldiers, and, of course, a damsel in distress.

Much has been made of the film’s efforts to relaunch the franchise following the disappointing reaction, from both audiences and critics, to Ang Lee’s 2003 “Hulk” (a film which, despite a recent cry from fans for reassessment, still isn’t a good movie). Marvel Comics earned curious glances when they announced “The Incredible Hulk” would be a do-over instead of a follow-up, although in a clever move, the filmmakers do not merely deliver another origin story. Instead, they present this movie as a sequel to the film they wish was made the first time around. (Comic fans call this retroactive continuity - “retcon.” I call it a sneaky success.) Following a credits sequence recap of an origin more in line with the 1970s TV series than the 2003 film, “The Incredible Hulk” opens with Dr. Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) hiding in Brazil - which is where the 2003 film ended.

Bruce has been on the run for five years, ever since his experiments with gamma radiation went wrong and transformed him into a green behemoth. (The way the screenplay doles out this information is smart, sidestepping the traditional A-to-B-to-C storytelling style of most origin tales, crafting more of a mysterious tone regarding Banner’s strange condition. As such, newcomers will discover a more satisfying introduction to the franchise.) When not toiling anonymously in a soda pop factory, Banner struggles to find an elusive cure to his beast within. A homemade lab helps him analyze chemical treatments, while yoga classes (and a handy pulse monitor) keep his nerves in line.

But General Ross (William Hurt), once deeply involved in Bruce’s gamma testing, is still on the hunt for the fugitive; a confrontation at the bottling plant unleashes the Hulk, which ultimately forces Bruce to journey back to America to find his last chance at a cure. Along the way, he crosses paths with old flame Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) - the general’s estranged daughter, and the only one who can truly understand him. Meanwhile, special ops captain Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) becomes obsessed with the Hulk’s powers and the science that can make him a super-soldier.

By abandoning the tone of Lee’s “Hulk,” incorporating visual quotes from the classic TV series, and playing up the high-action angle, “The Incredible Hulk” sounds like it’s trying too hard to appease fanboys and the summer popcorn crowd. Yet the screenplay, by Marvel regular Zak Penn (with a much publicized yet unaccredited rewrite by Norton), is able to juggle blockbuster spectacle with great character work. This movie gives us a Hulk in great inner pain; when he roars at his enemies, we can feel the grief underneath the noise.

In one of the film’s many intelligent moves, we go through about half the movie before getting a full-on glimpse of our title character. Instead, we enjoy a mix of man-on-the-run thriller (a rooftop chase packs all the excitement of Jason Bourne actioner) and monster-on-the-loose chiller (the Hulk stalks his prey in the shadows and smoke of the factory). Banner’s predicament is set up slowly, surely, with great precision, allowing us to come to know the man and his conflict. The factory showdown is great entertainment, to be sure, but when the Hulk suddenly, hauntingly bellows “Leave me alone” at his tormentors, we realize the depths of the character’s anguish. This makes the film more than just a clothesline for cheap thrills.

Director Louis Letterier, who previously helmed the surprisingly smart “Unleashed” and the unsurprisingly dumb “Transporter 2,” manages to offer up the best of both sides of the film, the somber and the exhilarating, flowing from one to the other and back with terrific ease. He knows exactly when the movie needs to be on fire - a showdown between the Hulk and Ross’ army is about as perfect as comic book adventure gets - and when it needs to smolder. Casting-wise, Norton is as spot-on a choice for Banner as Robert Downey, Jr., was for Tony Stark; Norton effortlessly deals in quiet inner turmoil, steely determination, and even flippant cynicism, adding full dimensionality to the role.

Norton also provided the motion capture backgrounds and facial expressions for the computer-animated Hulk. Some may complain that the CG effects here aren’t one hundred percent convincing, but here’s the thing: they work about as well as animated characters can without crossing into that “uncanny valley” of too-real-yet-strangely-inhuman, and the work done to bring the Hulk’s face to life is impressive enough to connect us with the character, but more importantly, the story’s so good in all the right spots that we never mind the rare spot when we can spot the effects lying to us. No, the effects aren’t perfect, but they’re close enough.

Speaking of the Hulk’s face: This is where the movie shines brightest. The creature of this film is more than just a random beast - he’s our star, a complete character fighting himself. The classic Hulk character trait is to be caught in a battle for your soul, the anger vs. the calmness, and how far do you take unchecked rage before you pull back, remembering the decency of a moral center? Watch how the effects crew animate the Hulk’s face in these scenes. His fury is immense, but always with the pain of a wounded animal, and when he calms down, we see not a monster but a man (a giant green man, but still), torn by his heated impulses. In the scenes between the post-battle, pre-back-into-Banner Hulk and Betty, the beauty who tames the beast, the movie finds a certain poetry.

Peppered throughout all this are all the go-to plot points for a brilliant creature feature. While Banner plays the role of tortured transformed man, eager to find a cure, Blonsky is the villain desperate to use Banner’s discovery for his own evil needs. (General Ross, meanwhile, gets to juggle foolhardy might-makes-right issues, making him a first-rate authority figure to boo; in the 1950s, it was the scientists that B movies couldn’t trust, and now it’s the government.) The Banner-Blonksy parallel course the movie takes is an excellent example of how to weave contrasting storylines in a comic book adventure, so when Blonksy finally gets his wish and becomes his own Hulk-like beast (fleetingly called “the Abomination”), the ensuing brawl that fills the third act and supplies fans with all their Hulk Smash needs actually feels like an natural extension to the overall plot and not, as is the case in too many superhero flicks, just some tacked-on loud finale.

And what a showdown. The Hulk and the Abomination tussle in the streets of Harlem, right outside the Apollo, smashing and crashing block after block. Gone are any expected 9/11 metaphors that seem to be mandatory in current New York-based smash-’em-ups, replaced by good ol’ fashioned mayhem. Letterier lets loose with the large scale brawl, essentially delivering the urban skirmish Michael Bay wanted to make at the end of “Transformers.”

But it’s far from mindless. Just when the action hits its fever pitch, the script brings back the humanity of the characters, reminding us - and the Hulk himself - of the gentleness of the man within. The Hulk may learn how to be a hero, not just a wild beast, but this can’t deaden the pain. The Hulk howls once more, and rarely are comic books movies as heartbreaking.

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