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The Incredible Hulk   B-

Universal Pictures / Marvel Entertainment

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Louis Leterrier
Writer: Zak Penn
Cast: Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, William Hurt, Tim Blake Nelson, Ty Burrell, Christina Cabot.

Review by Rob Vaux

You want your "Hulk smash"? You got it. If nothing else, The Incredible Hulk resolutely corrects one of the primary complaints about the 2003 Ang Lee version: namely, that we don't get nearly enough scenes of the titular green behemoth pounding things into oblivion. Director Louis Leterrier seems quite at home with the noisy mayhem that the Hulk specializes in. The question is, does he have anything else to offer beyond that?

Strictly speaking, he doesn't need to. The ethos on display here demands a quick, exciting pace, and the presence of Edward Norton in the lead provides enough character depth to avoid undue idiocy. In simplest terms, The Incredible Hulk is a hoot, despite a repetitive structure and tolerable amounts of summer-movie goofiness. The game follows very simple rules, which even passing fans can repeat verbatim. Brilliant physicist Dr. Bruce Banner (Norton) absorbs huge amounts of gamma radiation during a botched experiment and now walks around with the god-king of anger issues hidden deep inside. The U.S. military, led by General Ross (William Hurt), wants to harness that potential into a weapon, so Banner goes into hiding until he can find a cure. Every so often, some yo-yo tries to push him around or Ross gets a bead on him long enough to send in a commando squad. Then things get out of hand.

The Incredible Hulk has little else on its mind besides delivering that basic formula in a series of rotating set pieces. The good news is that the set pieces all work pretty well. Leterrier's imagination lends a considerable amount of variety to the action, though only in the most superficial ways. He reveals the Hulk himself (rendered in CGI) slowly and atmospherically: the first fight takes place largely in shadow, neatly enhancing the monster's sense of menace without confusing the audience in the process. Tim Roth makes a nice ringer as Emil Blonsky, head of Ross's task force charged with capturing the Hulk alive. Roth can do cool bad guys in his sleep by now, and Blonsky's eventual exposure to the same gamma radiation makes for a serviceable topper in the final act.

Norton himself is able to invoke Banner's dilemma both physically and emotionally. His thin, scrawny frame conveys as much about the character as his troubled face: an unassuming man struggling to keep a lid on a literal volcano. Though less complex than Eric Bana's turn in the Lee film, Norton lets us identify with Banner much more easily. The Incredible Hulk has a lot of fun with his efforts at impulse control, ranging from yoga breathing exercises and passive Brazilian jiujitsu to a recurring onscreen clock charting the number of days since his last "incident." Whenever he flees from the local bullies or Ross's soldiers, we can see an intriguing sense of fear on his face -- not for himself, but for the men pursuing him who clearly have no idea what they're trifling with.

The Incredible Hulk further adds a strong connection to the Marvel universe of comic-book heroes, which should please diehard fans to no end. Though some of the references are a little crude, it's enjoyable to think that the New York we see here is the same one Tobey Maguire swings through as Spider-Man, or that Patrick Stewart's school for gifted youngsters is just a quick drive upstate. The film takes clear steps to separate itself from the Lee version, making no references beyond a vague similarity of circumstance. Instead, it directly invokes the 1970s TV show, including periodic use of the theme music and a cameo from Lou Ferrigno (as well as a quiet nod to the late Bill Bixby). That blends in well with the winks to the fanboys, while providing a solid bedrock to center the film's overall tone.

And yet, there's still a lingering sense that some of the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater. Beneath its big fights and fancy effects, The Incredible Hulk has very little going on. It exists mainly as spectacle for spectacle's sake, couched in ways to keep the kids happy, but exhibiting little of the complexity that Lee delved for so earnestly. A few bits of plot-based inanity show up -- something Lee would never allow -- and the supporting performances suffer in comparison as well. Liv Tyler struggles as token love interest Betty Ross -- unable to create the aching vulnerability that Jennifer Connelly did in the previous film -- while Hurt merely pays the rent in a role that Sam Elliott knocked out of the park.

Some may argue that the differences are a good thing, and in that sense I'm glad The Incredible Hulk represents such a departure. It helps demonstrate the character's plasticity -- an ability to encompass multiple visions the way all of the best pop-culture icons can. But is it better than the Lee film? I'm not so sure. It strikes closer to its chosen target, but only because it didn't aim as high, and if it's more exciting than its predecessor, it also proves unable to challenge us in quite so many ways. Norton helps -- a lot -- but even his skills can't lift things above point-and-shoot action picture status. I suspect it won't age as well either, its sound and fury displaced more easily than Lee's flawed but fascinating psychological questions. In the end, that probably doesn't matter. The Incredible Hulk is good summer fun and that's all it really needs to be. But it surrenders a certain thoughtfulness for the sake of entertainment: a trade even its biggest admirers might someday come to regret.

Review published 06.14.2008.

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