70I actually managed to catch a test viewing of Ang Lee's 2003 Hulk, before it was polished up and shipped out for mass consumption. And, aside from a very messy final fight (which hurriedly tried to combine far too many comic book lore ideas into one frantic finale) I thoroughly enjoyed it. The effects weren't quite perfected, the picture not up to scratch, the score incomplete, but it did bode well for the final product. Disappointment came, however, when I finally saw it on theatrical release - the effects had been finalised, and looked bad for it, and the Hulk himself (for all the fun Ang Lee must have had doing the motion capture work for his movements) just didn't look right. The CG that worked so well for the acrobatic Spiderman did not cater for this particular man-mountain, who often seemed out of proportion and cartoon-like (and we're talking Looney Tunes, not Batman: The Animated Series). I still had a soft spot for the movies, partly because I'd liked the preview version so much (they set the entire desert battle sequence to part of the score from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - obviously because the new score hadn't been finalised - but it worked perfectly) and partly because this angry green man was always one of my favourite comic book superheroes. But when I heard rumour of a new 'reinvention' of Hulk, I chose to revisit Ang Lee's effort, prior to going to see the new one. It didn't take long to realise that this new interpretation totally eclipsed any previous live-action Hulk attempts. But was it enough to finally make a Hulk franchise viable?
Doctor Bruce Banner is on the run in South America. A brilliant scientist, his experiments involving military-funded 'super-soldier-serum' and potentially deadly gamma radiation bombardment had startling results. After exposure, he transformed into a 9ft tall green chunk of pure muscle, with a propensity for property destruction and zero sense of humour. Instantly topping-out the most wanted list, he fled to South America to hide away until he could develop a cure. But the military, led by the dogmatic patriot General Ross, are hot on his trail, seeking to capture and use his unique gift as a war machine. And when attempts at capture do not fare too well, the take drastic action to put another super-soldier on the playing field. Will Banner find a cure to his serious anger management issues? Will he manage to stay out of the dastardly grasp of the corrupt military machine railing against him? Will he finally be rid of the beast within, or will his seemingly out-of-control alter-ego eventually prove very necessary? Hmmm, I wonder.
It's only been a few years since Ang Lee's cinematic interpretation of this same character, so the decision-makers out there must have clearly regarded his take as being a 'failure' in order to green-light another remake. And I have to say that it was - on the whole - the right decision, as the new 'Incredible' Hulk works well as a partner movie to the excellent Iron Man, creating a more united Marvel Universe and allowing the possibility of a successful team movie (the upcoming Avengers flick). Many viewers familiar with Ang Lee's vision have expressed some confusion over the link between the two Hulk movies, but the answer is simple - there is no link. Sure, one ends with Banner running off to South American, and the other starts there, but that is only incidental and not supposed to connote any actual connection. Of course, it does not help clear things up for viewers to have a new movie that does not explore (at least comprehensively) the origins of this character - but between the visuals during the opening credit sequence and the nightmare scenes and discussions later, you can piece together this character's tragic history in a much more natural way (and we also get more time devoted to progressing the storyline and establishing all of the other characters).
In terms of narrative, the movie kicks off in very much the same style as the old TV show - in a good way - although avid Hulk fans will know that the story itself owes far more to the 2002 graphic novel, The Return of the Beast (and subsequent volumes of the same series), with key elements like Banner's search for a cure from a mysterious plant, his help from an ambiguous internet contact 'Mr Blue', his meditation techniques (involving a metronome), the military's desire to retrieve him for use as a weapon, and - ultimately - his confrontation with the military-created 'Abomination' all coming from this source. Even the closing shot will ring true with fans of the comic series, and deleted footage includes an alternate 'attempted suicide' opening sequence which will was also taken from the book. The decision to found so much of the movie in established comic lore is a wise one as, not only does it please all the fan-boys, but it also makes for damn good storytelling (the Return of the Beast, alongside the more recent Planet Hulk, is arguably the best Hulk story out there).
Of course, a decent story does not guarantee a decent movie, and Incredible Hulk is certainly not without its flaws. Thankfully, for the most part, it holds together as a mature, thrilling chase movie - only degenerating into the requisite climactic monster-bashing confrontation (and even there it succeeds where the 2003 movie failed) for the final reel. Granted, I'm sure Edward Norton (a class actor, great in everything from Fight Club to American History X) has his reasons for moaning about the final cut, but if the forty-five minutes' worth of deleted scenes present on the disc are anything to go by, I'm not really sure what he has to complain about. Sure, some of the smaller characters would have been developed more (Doc Samson for example) and it could have been marginally more cerebral and dialogue-orientated, but this cut works well on all levels and I honestly can't see them releasing another version of the movie - which, in my opinion, is not really a bad thing.
Norton himself is excellent as Banner, slightly better suited (not just physically) to the role than Eric Bana back in 2003. He manages to suitably capture the desperation, frustration and utter loneliness of the character - as well as the absolute fear that he has, not for himself, but for those around him. Sure, it may not require a massive stretch of Norton's acting abilities, but by the end of the near-two-hour runtime he still manages to evolve Banner from misunderstood and desperate to be 'cured' and 'normal' once again, into much more of a tragic hero. Integral to this process, however, is the development of the characters surrounding him, not only giving us a viewpoint from the side of the ultimate cynic (General Ross - “that man's whole body is property of the US Army”) but also the generally sceptical 'joe public' representative (Doc Samson - “you need a shrink”) and the amoral scientist (Doc Sterns - “I'm more curious than cautious”). Of course, the most important element in creating a hero is giving us a suitably - and definitive - villain, and Tim Roth's patriotic super-soldier, Emil Blonsky, is exactly that.
Roth is another class actor (Little Odessa, Reservoir Dogs, To Kill a King) only one who simply hasn't had as many good opportunities. And whilst Hulk (as for Norton) is by no means anything serious to get his acting chops into, he certainly does the best he can with the material (and it's a good way to get back into the Hollywood limelight). Watching the tragic (d)evolution of his character is one of the most interesting story arcs on offer here - kind of the polar opposite to Banner's path - and it gives you a taste of what to expect from the upcoming Captain America movie. William Hurt (Body Heat, The Village) brings us a convincing General Ross, also blinded by utter patriotism and a 'whatever it takes for the good of my country' attitude, but no so blind that he hasn't got the potential to distinguish between his various super-soldier creations. Interestingly, the love angle in the movie has also been played out quite credibly, with a very honest look at Banner's ex - Betty - who has clearly tried hard to move on following her true love's unexplained disappearance. Liv 'Stealing Beauty' Tyler (aside from doing vulnerably gorgeous extremely well) brings some semblance of emotional resonance to the role of the woman torn between her one true love, and the man she is currently living with, and she never allows the character to degenerate into just your standard screaming damsel in distress.
Comic fans will be happy to see so many of their favourite characters pop up here as well, even if some of them are mere introductions, with Betty's current boyfriend, Doc Samson, having quite a large part (further expanded on in the deleted scenes, although none of the footage for this film alludes to his future super-hero alter-ego), as well as a one of Hulk's most famous comic nemesis, The Leader (the weird green guy with the oversized brain). There's also the ambiguous references to Captain America (the first super-soldier, who Ross talks about having been created during World War 2) both in the movie dialogue and potentially given a resurrection in the deleted opening sequence (as they could tie-in Hulk's shattering of an ice-pack to the fact that Captain America was frozen in the ice for over half a Century), as well as the future Avengers team-up (through Tony 'Iron Man' Stark's cameo). It certainly all bodes well for the future, with this new Hulk interpretation - as I already stated - working well in tandem with Robert Downey Jr's superior Iron Man, and tying in quite nicely with the whole Marvel 'Avengers' universe as a whole (much better than they did with Spiderman, Daredevil and Elektra).
And for those concerned with the more action-orientated side of this movie - namely 'Hulk SMASH' - fear not, this one gets it just right. With a far more 'realistic' CG version of the Hulk, perfectly proportioned, and not doing anything too ludicrous (like leaping hundreds of miles), and also capable of getting thrown about and hurt quite a bit, this new 9ft muscle-man is much easier for audiences to believe in - and subsequently root for. It's amazing to see just how far effects have come, even in just the last five years, as this particular Hulk could never have been delivered to us back in the day of Raimi's original (suitably) elastic Spiderman. The Incredible Hulk delivers on all fronts, and opens up the door for a very successful franchise for this much-loved angry man. The future looks bright, the future looks green.
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