REVIEW: The Incredible Hulk (Louis Leterrier, 2008)

A new take on the popular Marvel comic book series, The Incredible Hulk finds gamma-infected scientist Bruce Banner hiding out in Brazil. Banner spends his time practicing meditation techniques and conducting experiments that may help him quell the latent beast beneath his skin. He gets by working for a bottling plant that, fittingly, specializes in a Guarana beverage. Life finally seems to be calming down until a mishap alerts an old nemesis to Banner's whereabouts, bringing down an avalanche of action and a threat to Banner's new, peaceful nature. Edward Norton takes another uncredited writer's seat as he leads a cast including Liv Tyler, Tim Roth and William Hurt in this, Louis Leterrier's first foray in to comic book territory that functions as both a sequel to Ang Lee's Hulk from 2003 and as a stand-alone.

We open as might be expected with the seemingly overused motion graphic style credits, but something is apparently different from other superhero movies of the past decade. Instead of simply careening through poorly animated DNA or nonsensical computer codes, Incredible Hulk is already beginning to set up its adventure through the use of dialogue-free flashbacks that handily bring us up to speed regarding this version of the events that made Bruce Banner what he is. This sequence lends a helping hand to the uninitiated while refreshing veteran Hulk fans' memories and leaving enough mystery intact to entice everyone.

Abandoning convention, the film shoves aside many hints of Hulk's roots, picking up with our lead already in the rejection phase of his superhuman life. The ditching of the origin is promising since stories following a hero's discovery of new powers have been worn to shreds. Marvel's other 2008 feature, Iron Man, while fun thanks to Robert Downey Jr.'s characteristically smart performance, suffers greatly within origin trappings, restricting the titular hero of breathing room. The audience's real hope is for a solid excuse for the metal guy to kick some serious tail - a hope that is met with sequences of Downey Jr. testing new equipment that pale upon replay. The rejection yarn is also tired, however, as terminally overrated blockbusters such as Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight have driven these types of stories into the ground with their all too sudden treatment of the angle. Thankfully, the Hulk is not your everyday hero. Like Spider-Man he did not choose to become what he is but unlike the arachnoid wise-cracker (if only, Raimi... if only) he cannot simply swear off his tights and attempt a more normal life. The Hulk, a powerful yet unwanted stigma, exists within Banner's cells, making for a vastly more intriguing conflict to carry the film through its heavyweight action scenes.

Leterrier has a knack for developing only what is necessary to satisfy a paying movie-goer. His Transporter 2 does require most audience members' brains be checked at the door but it delivers raucous fun with just enough drama between the action to create a well-rounded experience. With The Incredible Hulk he improves upon his stylings, making what could have been a cliche and boring first act quite compelling. There are no delusions telling the film-maker this is some kind of sophisticated opus. Right from the beginning we become wrapped up enough in Banner's exploits that the build to his alter ego's entrance is tantalizing but not to the point of becoming aggravating. We almost don't want Banner to "Hulk out." The scene that does finally introduce us to mean green is easily a highlight, patiently playing up the reveal with a symbolic nature not typical of this genre. The Hulk comes to us as a monster in the darkness - a raging beast from a horror film - and Norton's reaction in the aftermath sells it that much more.

The second act carries well, bringing about a decent centerpiece of action and teasing at the sympathetic side of each character. The third act, however, is where it falls in line with its contemporary, Iron Man, and becomes a desensitizing mess. Somewhere after one of the major secrets is unveiled (to underwhelming results) it must have been realized, just like it was in Iron Man, that the key threats had been dispatched before the film could have its climax. Cue the rampaging lunatic who has little to do with anything! By the time the credits roll, the audience is left wondering if the movie they just saw end was the same movie they saw begin nearly two hours prior. What starts an interesting character study devolves to the ever-lucrative formula of big things hitting each other.

This version of Hulk will inevitably, for better or for worse, meet comparison with Ang Lee's interpretation of the character. To this reviewer, they are quite evenly matched. Lee told of a meek scientist who was liberated by his newfound powers. It is an empowering tale featuring experimental, comic book style editing and a Hulk capable of sensitivity. Leterrier presents a man desperately running from a plague inside himself. He uses a dynamic color scheme to honor the comic foundation and unleashes an angry, uncontrollable Hulk. The films may be different stories but they are each respectable in their own rights. They merge somewhat in their third acts in that they feature big, computer generated dudes walloping one another into submission with little bearing on overall significances.

Well-paced summer fare, The Incredible Hulk, speed bumps and all, is a worthy addition to Marvel's cinematic stable. It clearly holds great reverence for its episodic predecessor, including similar themes, musical cues and even a Lou Ferrigno cameo that puts the 2003 Hulk's Ferrigno cameo to shame. It will please older and newer fans of the character despite being mostly humorless and while far from perfect, will make for a fun way to spend an evening.

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