The "Maybe-Not-So-Much-Incredible-But-Certainly-An-Improvement-Over-The-Last-Time" Hulk
Don't get me wrong. I admired what Ang Lee tried to bring to the, by now, here-to-stay "Superhero" sub-species (meta-species?) of action-adventure films. Taking his cue from Bryan Singer's "no, it's really about something" furrowed-brow approach to the "X-men," Lee (no relation to Smilin' Stan) made an examination of the rigors of the scientific mind, battling inner demons brought on by a repressed memory of child abuse, and made manifest in the form of a big green berserker id, The Hulk, equal parts Mr. Hyde and the Frankenstein monster.
Good thoughts. But we're talking "The Incredible Hulk" here. These films should take their cues from the "Superhero" epithets espoused by the characters, like Superman's affirmative "Up, Up and Away" or Batman's introspective "criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot" (these days he just says "Hrn."). "The Hulk" (in one of his incarnations) never got beyond "Hulk SMASH!" He's not the most sophisticated of heroes,* he's as pure a power-fantasy for nerds as can be--a three-year old with super-strength. So to pile on the daddy-complex psychology, when what people basically went to see was the Big Guy punch holes in things was putting a lace doily on a trash-compactor. Lee had fun bringing back split-screen to simulate comic panels (which was nifty), but "Hulk" was depressing...and not in a good way, like the "Batman" films. If you want angst, best take it only as far as "The Seven Samurai."
So, three years later, with "Marvel Studios" in control of (most of) their characters, and an eye towards creating an "Avengers" film in the future, comes a re-vamped "Hulk," with Ed Norton replacing Eric Bana, Liv Tyler for Jennifer Connelly, and William Hurt (made ruddy and silver-maned) for Sam Elliott. As good as those performers can be, the substitutions are all improvements. And this "Hulk," has no other agenda than to be a chase-and-fight film, and succeeds quite well in its humble goals.
Some Hulking thoughts:
The credit sequence re-writes the Hulk's origin-story (always a drag on these films, and is patterned after the TV-series), and gets going with Banner on the run. He's hiding in Brazil, working at a bottling plant in the densley populated box-city of "Rocinia Favela," in computer contact with a research scientist, and working on breathing disciplines to make sure he "don't go changin.'" It makes Banner a less helpless character than the last film, and gives him a goal.
Norton's re-write of the script (by Zak Penn--who wrote the last two "X-men" films and "Elektra" and gets full script credit on the film), is clever, detailed, and plays to the actor's calculating strengths. Plus, his Bruce Banner is a sickly-thin, not buff, scientist--in good shape, but not super-hero material. Nice contrast with the uber-defined Hulk.
The cameos all work terrifically, are integrated well, and show obvious affection for their subjects: Stan Lee (though not a drooling fan of his, one has to admit this is his best cameo, and he's terrific in it), Lou Ferigno (he looks great!), and, in an "Aw!" moment, the late Bill Bixby. Plus, Robert Downey, Jr. makes an appearance as Tony Stark (Iron Man).
Tyler and Norton do wonders with the stormy (heh) Betty Ross-Bruce Banner romance. Connelly and Bana never seemed to connect in the first film, and seemed quite diffident to each other. Not here.
Hulk does more than roar and punch. Here he is quite capable of using collateral damage as a defense and weaponry (and kudos to the sound design team for the police car sequence). There is one scene of Hulk being attacked by "sonic-blast" weaponry that is as enjoyably "comic-booky" as in any of these films.
Tim Roth makes a very effective villain, green with envy for The Hulk's power, and the simple monster a monster plot is stream-lined and moves along while not feeling very draggy (as the battle sections of "Iron Man" did).
Director Louis Leterrier keeps the pace going, as one would expect of a director of the "Transporter" films, and there are extended chases through that Brazilian slum-town that recall the run-downs of the "Bourne" series and the parkour scenes of "Casino Royale."
Leterrier also treats the Hulk like the shark in "Jaws" (or "Batman" in "Batman Begins"); we only get glimpses of him in the dark, as big pieces of machinery go hurtling through the air, placing the audience in the same disoriented mode as the "wet" squad sent to capture him.
Bruce Banner has a Blue Heeler like I do. How cool is that?
It made me happy, right? I enjoyed myself, right? So, why not as high a rating as, say, "Indiana Jones?" Because, as fun as it is, the effects scenes tend to look a bit shoddy on the big-screen. The Hulk, himself, looks a bit too much like one those plasticene statues of "the Hulk" you see at comic-shops, and things like helicopter inserts have a video-game quality to them. Everything about it is fine, but I don't think the film will suffer on the small screen. You don't need to spend full-bore on "The Incredible Hulk" to get the most out of it. The decision is economical, rather than artistic, and for that, "The Incredible Hulk" goes down a notch.
"The Incredible Hulk" is a rental--he'll look better on the small screen, and you won't miss much.
* Face it, "The Incredible Hulk" is "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (in the comic book and the first film, the transformation is accidental, while in the tv series and this film, Banner does it to himself). And it's always creeped me out a bit that you could make a "hero" out of "Hyde." But combined with the "poor, poor monster" aspects of Frankenstein (Kirby's early flat-topped Hulk looked an awful lot like Karloff), and the tv series' driving it further, by using "The Fugitive's" running victim conceit, you could tame the brute.