My Rating: 7 out of 10
I’ll preface my review with a confession: I liked the first Hulk movie. It wasn’t perfect by a long shot, with a far-too-convoluted plot and too much time with a whiney Eric Bana. But Ang Lee had a terrific visual style and brought out a lot of interesting ideas and character points. It has it merits, but it wasn’t a film meant for franchise. The Incredible Hulk most certainly is. Leterrier has stripped away some of the heaver elements of Ang Lee’s interpretation to create a lean, action-packed film that stays closer to the tone of the Hulk comics and TV series. If you’re looking for a deep dramatic film then look elsewhere, but if you want a blockbuster popcorn action flick that makes a decent attempt to be serious, The Incredible Hulk is right up your alley.
The film follows Bruce Banner (Norton), a mild-mannered scientist who, thanks to an overdose of gamma radiation, transforms into the giant monstrous Hulk whenever he’s angry or stressed. For five years Bruce has been a fugitive, on the run and pursued by General “Thunderbolt” Ross (Hurt), who wants to turn the Hulk into a military weapon. Close to a cure for his condition, Bruce returns to America to find ex-girlfriend Betty Ross (Tyler) – who happens to be General Ross’ daughter – and faces off against Emil Blonsky (Roth), an ageing commando whose obsession with the Hulk’s power slowly turns him into an Abomination.
Director Louis Leterrier comes from a background in action flicks, such as The Transporter films, and it’s very obvious from watching Hulk. The film is chock full of explosive fights and thrilling chases that Leterrier translates to the screen with pace and vigour and pure energy. Seeing the Hulk stalk a team of soldiers through a factory, or face off against General Ross’ battalions, or go twelve rounds with this flick’s supervillain was enough to make me want to cheer and whoop. And Bruce Banner gets his fair share of action too, in some great Bourne-style foot chases. Leterrier really knows how to build tension too. The use of the heart monitor during Bruce’s more fast-paced sequences helps to get the audience’s hearts racing too, and the way the Hulk-outs are put together mean that even though we know the Hulk is nearly indestructible there’s still an element of tension, an element of fear in the action sequences.
On a side-note, I’m thankful as all hell that the barf-o-rama style – the trend of shooting actions scenes with a style somewhere between cinema verte and Parkinson’s disease – has died down.
The film’s plot, while simplistic, is not without merit. The writers created an engaging tale about a man trying, quite literally, to come to terms with his inner demons, while taking our anti-hero across two continents and giving him a chance to prove his chops in the Marvel superhero universe. The action scenes slot well into the film’s plot, adding something to the events unfolding rather than just blowing shit up for the sake of it. For the most part the dialogue settles for being functional, occasionally giving us a gem and occasionally giving us a line that sounds like something out of the Star Wars prequels. Overall, Leterrier and writers Zak Penn and Edward Norton have done a good job of making The Incredible Hulk an actual movie rather than two hours of fights just for the sake of it.
The actors are a mixed bag. Edward Norton is fantastic, as he always is, playing Bruce as with equal measures of an introverted genius, a man humbled by a huge mistake, and a guy who’s really afraid of himself. The whole movie hinges on Bruce Banner and they certainly got the right guy for the job. Liv Tyler is more on the negative side of the scale. Her performance in the first few scenes is so completely rubbish you’ll want to close your eyes and pray the film moves on to something else. Towards the middle of the film she seemed to get a better feel for the role and we get a character that’s very sweet and empathetic, something the movie could’ve used more of. And Tyler gets a brilliantly funny bit in the first of the New York scenes. But as the flick pushes towards the conclusion her performance drops off again into a really crummy damsel-in-distress. Hurt seemed to sleepwalk through the role. Which isn’t entirely bad: William Hurt on autopilot is a lot better than most actors you see. But the character of General Ross is often likened to Captain Ahab from Moby Dick because of the passion and the possessiveness with which he pursues the Hulk. Hurt never really conveyed that passion, no matter how well he said his lines of played out the blocking, and it detracted from that very important aspect of the film.
But in my opinion, it’s Tim Roth who gave the standout performance as the villainous Emil Blonsky. It’s amazingly clear that Roth enjoyed bringing out every aspect of that character. He really gets across the hook of the character, the ageing professional soldier who loves his job but hates that his body is failing him, and he relishes the chance to be an unscrupulous badass. Most important to the role, the thing that Hurt lacked but Roth brings in spades, is the passion, the obsession that drives the character’s arc through the movie. From the first moment that Blonsky sees the Hulk in action we see, through Roth’s performance more than anything from the script, how the jolly green giant becomes fixated in the character’s mind and how he sees the Hulk as a way of achieving his own dream of being young and strong again. This obsession is tremendously important to the entire movie, especially the final sequences, and without such a high-quality actor in the role I suspect the film would’ve fallen apart.
A lot of people have slammed the movie’s CGI, saying it looks too cartoonish and basically rubbish, but I didn’t have a problem with it. If anything I think it’s an improvement on the previous Hulk film. There’s a fixed scale to the Jade Giant this time around, in height and power, and he’s a lot more grounded in real physics. Leterrier had Edward Norton perform a lot of the Hulk scenes in a motion capture studio and it shows, as the Hulk’s various fight scenes feel real and intense even with the CGI.
Leterrier had a great vision for this film and he carried it off well. The subject matter was never going to be high art, something that Ang Lee never understood, so the creative team set out to make a fun, action-packed film that tapped into the spirit of the comics and some of the more serious aspects of the subject matter. They succeeded. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and recommend it to any fan of action movies or superheroes.
My Rating: 7 out of 10
P.S. The film is packed-a-plenty with references to the Hulk comics, as well as the larger Marvel universe. Some of it is to make the fans happy. Some of it – such as Dr Sterns, or a certain man of iron – is foreshadowing for future movies. Long story short: keep your eyes peeled.