Taking the baton from Ang Lee's existential opus starring Eric Bana in the title role (minus the “Incredible” bit), Louis Leterrier furnishes Marvel's second go-it-alone cinematic project after the triumphant Iron Man with something a little more akin to the pulverising comic page-turner that started it all. And with the slap-dash but action-savvy Transporter 2 and Danny The Dog under his belt, he probably didn't seem all that odd a choice to helm such a huge-scale FX-extravaganza as The Incredible Hulk, since it would be a given that he would, at least, guarantee us plenty of mayhem. Whereas Ang Lee's version - to which this take only loosely follows on from - had lofty ambitions of monstrous Id-personas and raging super-ego ideals to contend with, this update shuts down such psychological and mood-experimenting shenanigans in favour of expanded chaos, full beast-on-beast street-wrestling and the severe trauma of being an outcast forever on the run. With Edward Norton now assuming the role of mild-mannered, nerdy fugitive Bruce Banner, on the lam from the nefarious US military who still want to break him down, find the source of his gamma-birthed power and rear an army of mutant warriors (the same old story, eh?), and also using his clout behind the scenes to get the project moving, things seemed like they might be heading towards an exciting and refreshingly mature take on the muscle-bound odyssey. However, barring a couple of moments of vehicular-evisceration, some super-charging beast-man collisions and a rooftop chase across a shanty-town culled directly from The Bourne Ultimatum, Leterrier's offering is decidedly lacklustre.
In fact, this is one of the most dull and depressing event movies that I've seen. And considering the source material and its innate cinematic qualities and the fact that Marvel, themselves, are calling the shots and not some bunch of studio execs who have no knowledge of the character's heritage or fan-base, this is truly bewildering. But the screenplay from Zak Penn just serves as a hum-drum commencer to the long-awaited Avengers movie, pepped-up by the now famous arrival of one Tony Stark - Robert Downy Jnr.'s pre- as opposed to the conventional post-credits appearance possibly the best thing about this movie. Even Indy's less-than-inspiring fourth outing was more enjoyable than this ... well, almost.
The weird thing about the Hulk, as a saga across all mediums, is that his human alter ego is really the villain - from a certain point of view. Let's face it, all we want to see is Hulk Smash!, and then we have this little spindly feller who wants nothing more than to destroy this raging beast within him. Even the more cardboard bad guys - the military, other super-enhanced lab creations, etc - want what we want ... the Hulk. So, the problem at the crux of any interpretation of this story is that the more you show of Banner getting depressed and searching for a cure, the less you damn well care about him. We don't want you to get better, Bruce! You got that? Hulk-out and stay Hulked-out. Or, at the very least, get someone in who can actually imbue the Bruce Banner side of things with some character.
Plot-wise, that Jason Bourne analogy is actually pretty accurate. Cut off and isolated from those he loves and a past that he cannot reconcile, Dr. Bruce Banner has to keep on his toes, flitting from place to place in order to keep out of the devious grasp of a corrupt military that has betrayed him, all the while attempting to find a cure for his bizarre gamma-irradiated condition. Much like Bourne, he is racing to find himself and gain freedom in the process. And, just as Bourne does, he will ultimately have to resort to using those special powers to protect himself and keep on running. With a long-distance contact trying to establish a potion that will eliminate the rage-cells within him and a pining for Betty (Liv Tyler), the sweetheart he was forced to leave behind eating away at him, Bruce lives day by day and minute by minute. All the while he is aware that General Ross (William Hurt) and his hi-tech commandos are searching for him, but this time he hasn't counted on one of them becoming a bigger, nastier (though surprisingly more communicable) version of his own berserker alter-ego, fan-fave the Abomination. Inevitably, traps will be sprung, chances will be taken and earth-shattering confrontations will ensue. New York will, once again, fall prey to tumbling masonry, explosions and panic in the streets.
So where's Spidey when you need him?
There are many problems with this movie, but the main one has to be that it features two of the least charismatic leads ever to grace the screen. We already know that Liv Tyler is no great shakes in the acting department, but she does, at least, have presence ... normally. Her Betty Ross is such a lousy-drawn character, though, that even this intangible screen attribute is utterly squandered. How often does she have to stand and gape as her man goes excitable and green? Why is putting on a pair of spectacles supposed to make us think that she is intelligent? But, worse yet ... what has happened to Edward Norton? So good in American History X and Fight Club, now so naff that even the few lines he utters in this mess have all the spark of catatonic, falling into empty space with soulless delivery. His miniscule frame - naturally serving as a visual contrast to his brutish other persona - and perpetually bored expression making his interpretation of Banner the most mundane and grey of the lot. There isn't one ounce of personality to his portrayal. Not one. Miniscule injections of humour fall embarrassingly flat, and you just try to sit through the squirm-inducing love scenes between him and pouty Betty without giggling at the ghastliness of it all.
William Hurt's General Ross is just a gruff, emotionless caricature - which works great in comics or animated shows, or in films that have absolutely no pretence at being anything other than a live-action interpretation of such, but not in a big league movie that is clearly intending to make a statement or two amidst the chaos. The great Sam Elliot did so much better with the role in Ang Lee's version - that voice, that granite-hewn face and the real sense of a lurking humanity deep within those 9mm eyeballs. And then, of course, we get Tim Roth's over-eager Emil Blonsky, Russian-born, English-bred, American-smothered ex-Royal Marine with serious Green-skin envy. What seemed like a delight on paper - a completely gung-ho older warrior so besotted with taking the next evolutionary step in super combat-ability that he would willingly subject himself to freakish infusions of an outdated, outlawed potion, Marvel's fabled Super Soldier Serum that once transformed Steve Rogers into Captain America - is ruined by Roth's almost deformed performance even before he becomes the Abomination. Honestly, just look at him trying to act like a tough bad-ass trooper. And then check out his slovenly, dishevelled appearance in full uniform alongside medal-and-ribbon-strewn Ross - he looks positively lopsided and hunchbacked. Roth is a great actor - well, a very good one, anyway, given the right in-your-face material to work with. Let's be honest, he was the only thing worthwhile in Tim Burton's abysmal Planet Of The Apes retread, giving his General Thade a wild simian savagery that really leapt from the screen and lingered in the mind long afterwards. But, here, he seems hopelessly miscast as the exo-skeletal beastoid craving the ultimate battle-rush. “Is that all you've got?” he demands of the Hulk during their second skirmish - this time face to face and in broad daylight, but his surly bad-boy attitude is about as convincing as Banner's ability to flit across borders unnoticed by the mighty US government out hunting him down. His ungainly strutting and sourpuss visage make you crave his transformation takes place sooner rather than later. Although I have to say that he does give a damn fine reaction to the wicked needle that gets rammed into his bone-marrow!
So much of this falls way below the levels of excitement that we have every right to expect from such a movie. Leterrier's direction is flaccid at best. Even his “Hulk Smash” scenes lose steam all too quickly. The fights are nothing to write home about and that much-touted twenty-minute gamma-tussle finale is about as exciting as watching somebody else playing the Hulk game on the PS3 ... badly. With a totally annoying preference for interminable establishing shots - just how many times does he feel he has to show us those jam-packed hillside shanties with exhaustive aerial views before we get the picture that Banner's hiding out in a third world hovel? - and a knack for staging the most gangly and inept emotional scenes, his approach could best be described as uninterested, or maybe slightly reluctant. The beauty and the beast sequence when Hulk carries Betty off to the safety of a cave totally riffs on similar stuff in King Kong, but would, however, have been genuinely captivating with its epic rainstorm canvas and picturesque promontory where it not for the daftly enforced comedy shtick of the Green Goliath bashing his head on the rocky roof. He's just withstood bullets, rockets and a sonic canon for God's sake - how is a little jagged stalactite going to harm that noggin? Oh, and look out for one of the most ridiculously superfluous and self-indulgent scenes of the last few years when Bruce and Betty take a completely left-field taxi-ride from hell. The sequence serves as a preposterous punch-line to an earlier quip but is symptomatic of a screenwriter and a director who simply have no idea how or when to use humour.
And where is the danger from the Hulk? The big guy is a rogue, a wild-card. He is not your conventional superhero. Whilst he may not be a cold-blooded killer, he is a considerable threat to all those around him and every other hero, no matter what their powers may be, gives him a wide berth. Ang Lee got this part right. Although we felt for this confused monster, we also feared him. Just look at that scene in the Eric Bana version when the Hulk leaps onto a fighter-plane and puts the fear of God into the poor pilot. Or when he goes mental on those tanks. There is a genuine malevolence exuded by the previous behemoth that has been leached away from this one. Norton's chump, in a simply horrible step-down from violence stance, responds to a command not to kill his nemesis, sinking the whole deal of the ultimate brawl in one fell swoop. I'd like to say more about this particular part of the film, but I can't for fear of giving away too much of an ending that seems to have forgotten about one rather large threat. Sufficed to say that the scariest thing about this incarnation of the Hulk is that Leterrier has vowed to put another 70 minutes of footage onto the Blu-ray version later in the year! As far as I am concerned, he should have cut this version of the film down by 70 minutes.
You all know how much I love my movie soundtracks - with a whole heap of reviews online to support that - so it comes as yet another bitter blow to report that Craig Armstrong's score for The Incredible Hulk is one of the dreariest, most repetitive and bland that I have heard in a long, long time. There is no full-blooded theme, no character signatures - unless you count the nicely appreciated homage to Joe Harnell's original The Lonely Man cue from the TV series - no suspense and no beauty to any of it. And, to make matters worse, it doesn't know when to end, either. The intelligent thing about a score is its knowing when it isn't needed - when to support the emotion, the action or the story, and when to back away and let the actors do their thing. Armstrong's music just drones on and on and on, unforgiving and pitifully un-rousing.
The Incredible Hulk just didn't do it for me, I'm afraid. I may have wished for a story, some threat and some point to Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull but even those sad omissions were partly allayed by the colourful, and disposable fun to be had. Leterrier's movie has a story - albeit a weak one - but it completely defuses the excitement with relentless doom and gloom.
Cameos from Stan Lee and Lou Ferrigno, nods to the comic-conscious fans, allusions to the bigger picture above and beyond the Hulk's plight notwithstanding, this is a terminal dirge of a movie that produced one of the most silent and glum-looking audience file-outs that I've encountered.
After the ruination of Indy and now Hulk's less than incredible performance, my hopes now lie with Hancock and, of course, The Dark Knight to bring back some heroes for the Summer.
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