17 June 2008

All together now: HULK SMASH!

The Incredible Hulk is a lean, mean, green fighting machine. It’s everything you want from a Hulk movie. Everything that Ang Lee didn’t give you five years ago.

Confession: I didn’t hate 2003’s Hulk the way that most people seem to (aside from the standard dissenters who proclaim it a misunderstood masterpiece), and I admire that Lee was trying to take comic book material with the same seriousness he applied to his more Oscar-ready efforts. But it is a very misguided film that strives for Greek tragedy and Freudian psychology, but misses that fun that should drive this sort of comic book tale. It only clicks during a middle stretch of the Hulk’s rampage, and slogs through an unnecessary sense of importance during the rest. Hulk need drama yes, but Hulk also need smash!

And director Lous Letterrier’s ‘take 2’ on the material smashes a bunch. It rollicks through the under two-hour running time and entertains the hell out of its audience. It isn’t a brilliant masterwork, and not at the level of Batman Begins or Spider-Man 2 in the annals of superhero movies, but I left that theater with a grin on my face and the desire to hop around screaming “Hulk smash!” That’s success, and what all summer films should hope for.

The Incredible Hulk restarts the franchise, and the only reference it seems to make to Ang Lee’s film is that Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) starts the story hiding in South America. A rapid montage under the credits, inspired from the 1970s TV show, re-imagines the Hulk’s origins. It’s fast, but it’s all we need: the Hulk is part of the cultural landscape, so a dose of backstory, and off we go.

The plot that follows is no-frills, and also takes a large inspiration from the TV show, which viewed the story as a take on The Fugitive. Banner searches for a way to cure himself, but he’s on the run from the relentless General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt), who wants the secrets in Banner’s body for the military. Banner hooks back up with his love, Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), the general’s daughter, in his quest. Now the following sequence repeats: military tracks Banner, surrounds him, Banner “Hulks out,” mayhem. The movie is strung together around three such sequences. But Letterrier has this thing moving so fast and so enjoyably, pointing this out doesn’t function as a criticism. Letterier provides different visual styles for each of the scenes. The first one is lensed like a horror movie, with the Hulk appearing in a slow reveal. The big confrontation on a college campus puts the Hulk in an open element and really lets us see how he moves and fights. The last scene is the “smack-down” between the Hulk and super-powered adversary the Abomination, and it plays out in a Harlem street and New York concrete canyons, a place where the Hulk can use two halves of a police car as boxing gloves and literally interpret the phrase “pound into the pavement.”

Tim Roth as the Abomination’s human form, Emil Blonksy, is the movie’s dramatic secret weapon. With a very straightforward plot elsewhere, Blonksy’s character arc of a scrappy solider past his prime who turns obsessed with the Hulk’s power is a great plot back-up. Roth appears to be having the time of his life in the part as well. Also living it up is Tim Blake Nelson as Samuel Sterns, super-villain-to-be, who starts his transition into the Leader at the conclusion.

However, the trio of Norton/Tyler/Hurt is a bit disappointing. Norton is one the best actors working today, but his Banner feels superficial and under-explored. Tyler is gorgeous, but a bit frail and young for the part. And Hurt looks a touch bored—Sam Elliott nailed this part in the first movie, and he’s the one thing from Ang Lee’s version that I would have transported over to this one.

Now for the geek-love section: the cameos and hints. Stan Lee, of course, makes a short appearance. Bill Bixby appears via a TV broadcast of The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. Lou Ferrigno plays a security guard, and Ed Norton tells him “you are the man!” Ferrigno also voices the Hulk’s few lines—but they’re damned memorable lines. Yes, you already knew that Robert Downey Jr. would pop in as Tony Stark and give more hints about the developing Avengers movie.

But most important for me are the many references to Captain America. The Super-Solider program responsible for creating Cap in World War II forms the background of the experiment that created the Hulk and eventually turns Blonsky into the big bad A-Bom. After decades of waiting, Captain America is finally stirring at the bottom of the Atlantic, and we’re going to see him on the big screen in a big budget blockbuster!

But not until 2011.