Thursday, June 26, 2008

INCREDIBLE HULK- a very late review

By now, if you're a comics fan, you've seen THE INCREDIBLE HULK. I've seen it twice and, why not, I'll share my opinions with you, my loyal blog-readers.

While not quite reaching the heights of IRON MAN, INCREDIBLE HULK does a great job of presenting the character (for the second time in five years) to the movie-going public. Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) is a scientist whose experiment five years ago went horribly wrong; whenever he grows angry or scared, or is hurt, he transforms into a nine-foot-tall greenish-gray engine of mass destruction. He's been on the run since the day of his first change, hounded relentlessly by Gen. Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross (William Hurt) and a team of Hulkbusters that now includes top soldier Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth).

Banner is hiding in a favela (ghetto) in Brazil, where he hopes a flower can lead to a cure for his condition. A mishap at the soda bottling plant where he works leads to a gamma poisoning in the US (Stan Lee, in an extremely brief and uncredited cameo), putting Ross's troops on his trail once more. Banner tries to elude them but complications ensue, and the Hulk smashes the Hulkbusters--and leaves Blonsky burning for a rematch.

Banner's best hope of a cure now lies in returning to the US, so he heads north and makes his way to Culver College, where he once studied with Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), Gen. Ross's daughter. Betty and Bruce have a relationship that is true love-- once she realizes he is back, after he's tried and failed to retrieve crucial data for a mysterious colleague, she cannot dump her boyfriend Leonard (Ty Burrell) fast enough or do enough to help his mission.

Unfortunately, Ross and the Army are on the scene. They corner Banner in a glass walkway and try to use knockout gas, but the Hulk breaks loose and mayhem ensues. A very cool pair of sonic cannons have him on the ropes briefly, then Blonsky gets his rematch--with crushing results, courtesy of the Hulk making a vicious punt.

The Hulk, carrying Betty, manages to escape the battlefield, but the damage is done; college students have caught footage on their cell phones and even dub the green monster "a hulk" (hence the name). Ross's best soldier is crippled, the word is out and his daughter is in the hands of a monster (literally). Clearly he is not having a good day.

With the necessary data now in hand, Bruce and Betty head to New York to meet "Mr. Blue," aka Dr. Samuel Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson)--a name that will be familiar to readers of the Hulk comic book. Sterns is an eccentric, ethically challenged biochemist who thinks he has a fix for Banner, though he cheerfully admits that a mistake could be fatal. They concoct a trial run, where Betty manages to keep the Hulk calm enough for the antidote to work, just before the Army arrives in force... and Blonsky has a little chat with Sterns.

This time, his Hulk reflex numbed by the antidote, Bruce and Betty are captured and taken into custody. As they're being taken away, a new monster--something Sterns calls "an abomination"--shows up to wreak havoc in Harlem. Suddenly, the Hulk is their only option for preventing thousands of deaths and billions in property destruction... but is even the green monster powerful enough to take on this brand-new beast?

Marvel Studios has another hit on their hands, there's no denying it. The movie, directed by Louis Leterrier and written by Zak Penn, contains amazing amounts of action, matching Bruce Banner and his emerald alter ego against some powerful enemies. The clash between Hulk and Abomination at the film's climax is a feast for anyone who loves superhero movie action.

There's also some good chemistry between Edward Norton and Liv Tyler, who make viewers believe that these two have a long history and a powerful emotional bond. There are great little touches that drive this home, from Betty's ability to reach the Hulk's gentler side to Bruce's fleeting looks of yearning when he sees Betty with another man. It's good movie work, supplemented by William Hurt's portrayal of Ross as a man whose ambition long ago overwhelmed his basic humanity--in some ways, he's a bigger monster than the Hulk. And Nelson is manic and almost giddy as Sterns, foreshadowing a major threat on the horizon in his final scene.

On the other hand...

Tim Roth is a fine actor but I felt he was miscast as Blonsky. He has the emotional intensity of a man who simply cannot accept second place to the Hulk, but his physicality just isn't persuasive; he doesn't look like a career hardass. That's just my opinion and it's a minor quibble.

What isn't a minor quibble is how the film makers treated 'Leonard' (aka Dr. Leonard Samson), Betty's transitory boyfriend. We see them together twice--in the quad and in a pizza parlor--before Betty takes Bruce home and then goes with him in the morning. We also get a very brief scene where he gives a psychoanalytic snapshot of Ross. Essentially, his presence in the film was a waste of time. He could have been used to illuminate a romantic triangle with Bruce and Betty, or give Liv Tyler a chance to agonize over leaving a good man for the guy she loved but lost, or even highlight the benefits of a safe, comfortable but unchallenging relationship over a much more dangerous true love.

But no. Instead, we get a general dismissal of the character as unimportant, so that we get no idea why Betty ever dated him. It's a feeble attempt at fan service (see more on this below) but it was entirely wasted and the biggest disappointment of the movie.

As for fan service, gee, did we get a lot of it. Much like IRON MAN, this is a movie that rewards being a comic book reader. Among the touches:

  • lots of SHIELD logos popping up on computer monitors, along with Nick Fury's name;
  • ditto Stark Industries requisition forms;
  • discussion of a "super soldier" project in World War II (i.e., Captain America);
  • a liquid nitrogen canister holding a blue serum, with a metal label that reads "Dr. Reinstein" (the scientist who turned Steve Rogers into Captain America);
  • a scene where Blonsky shows off amazing acrobatic combat moves, while the Hulk (in an interesting twist) is holding a shield (foreshadowing how they would show Cap in action);
  • an exchange between Ross and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), wherein Stark alludes to a team being put together (a reference to the AVENGERS movie being planned for 2011);
  • a running gag involves Bruce buying pants that will stretch enough lest he have an incident--and Betty buys him purple sweats at one point;
  • and probably more than I didn't catch (though I hear a deleted scene involves Captain America as well).

It also rewards familiarity with the TV show of the 1970s:

  • there's a quick glimpse of Bill Bixby on TV (he played "David Banner" on the TV show);
  • Lou Ferrigno, who played the Hulk, provides the Hulk's voice AND makes an appearance as a security guard (geez, he's a big guy!);
  • a few notes of the familiar "walking man" theme are heard during one stretch
  • Bruce's eyes flare with intense green light (like David's did) prior to his change--there's even one moment that's an exact recreation from the series-- and finally,
  • the accident that turns Bruce into the Hulk is nearly an exact repeat (this time including Betty, who was not a character in the TV show) of the experiment David Banner tries on himself, even down to the green crosshairs that appear before the gamma pulse.

It's terrific, and shows that Marvel is serious about building an integrated cinematic universe, building upon the great start made by IRON MAN. Sure, they might not have the X-Men, Fantastic Four or Spider-Man, but they will have (soon enough) THOR, CAPTAIN AMERICA, ANT-MAN and IRON MAN 2.

I said at the beginning that the movie doesn't reach the heights of IRON MAN. Why is that? I think it's because Bruce Banner is a less fun character than Tony Stark. They both have their demons to overcome, but Bruce is a more melancholy figure; he's not the guy you'd want to invite to your party, lest he "hulk out" and destroy your home. Maybe it's the more somber tone, but HULK is just a less exhilarating movie than IRON MAN, which is probably exactly right.

With INCREDIBLE HULK carrying the torch, the future is looking very bright indeed for Marvel Studios.

No comments: