The Incredible Hulk begins with a helpful restaging of previous events (the film is a sequel of sorts to Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk): Dr. Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) bombards himself with gamma radiation and is transformed into something big and green, as his colleague and main squeeze (Liv Tyler) looks on. Soldiers are dispatched to subdue whatever-it-is; whatever-it-is dispatches them right back and flees on foot.
Five years later Banner is lying low in Brazil, working in a bottling plant and practicing relaxation techniques to control his transformations. He’s also trying to find a cure, which contributes to the film’s slow start. You’d think that Louis Leterrier, director of the hyperkinetic chase flick Transporter 2, wouldn’t stand for quite so much typing before the first big action sequence.
But the juxtaposition of intense physical rampages with equally intense stretches of quiet desperation serves a purpose. Leterrier and screenwriter Zak Penn (X2: X-Men United) return here to an aspect of the Hulk story that carried it through five uneasy seasons on TV: Bruce Banner as Lonely Guy. They’ve even revived that sad little piano tune—titled, natch, “The Lonely Man”—that accompanied Banner’s hitchhiking ennui. For you see, folks, it ain’t easy being green. (I hate myself.)
Casting Edward Norton was a controversial move—and ultimately a good one. As the lead in Lee’s film, Eric Bana (Munich) had trouble inhabiting the character’s nerdiness; he’s a hunk with some of the Hulk’s blocky form pre-installed. Norton wears Banner’s awkwardness effortlessly, and he and the Hulk couldn’t be more different. (Blessedly, the computer-generated behemoth looks nothing like him.) His scrawniness adds weight to Banner’s burden—he’s a small man carrying a gigantic secret.
The supporting cast is similarly downsized. As Betty Ross, Liv Tyler’s elven wisp stands in serviceably for Jennifer Connolly’s voluptuousness. And slight, ferocious Tim Roth ably surpasses the puffy Nick Nolte as antisocial-man-turned-monstrous-supervillain. (Roth played a very mean monkey in Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes, which he channels here using only his God-given face and a crisp military uniform.)
Roth is Emil Blonsky, an army major ordered by Betty’s father, General Ross (a taciturn William Hurt) to hunt down Banner. Ross offers Blonsky a prototype strength serum developed with Banner’s research, and he agrees to do the Dew. Power corrupts, and steroids-on-steroids corrupt absolutely. Thus is born our Hulk-sized bad-guy, The Abomination.
The action, when it comes, is sustained and very intense, and some elements push the scare factor to alert levels:
(1) Primal screaming: Several straight-on close-ups of one creature or another bellowing with anger = high-octane nightmare fuel for younger kids. (Remember the PG-13 rating.)
(2) Gunplay galore: Hulk gets most of the bullets, which bounce right off him—but the results for others are quite real.
(3) People thrown around like rag dolls: Three or four dozen human bodies are treated like hacky sacks by the Hulk or the Abomination or plain old gravity. It amounts to graphic violence with relatively little blood—a remarkable technical achievement, but it made me wince.
Profanity is infrequent: Major Blonsky is p—ed about this and that, and at one point he uses the b-word to refer to a colleague he’s just killed.
Sexwise, Bruce and Betty lie clothed on a motel bed and embrace lustily; he has to stop for fear of Hulking out. (must… not… joke…)
The previews: Hellboy II: The Golden Army (not yet rated); The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (not yet rated); Miracle at St. Anna (not yet rated); X-Files: I Want to Believe (PG-13); Hancock (PG-13); Tropic Thunder (R). All contain PG-13 material.
In light of its predecessor, The Incredible Hulk does a good job being its own monster. It’s big, loud, fun—and it might be a little hard to clean up after.