I know it's been a while. I didn't go into hiding, contrary to popular belief. Okay, so maybe I did, but I came out in time to score free passes to a preview screening of "The Incredible Hulk," the new film starring Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, and a couple of CGI creations resembling the Hulk and one of his arch-enemies, the Abomination. People have speculated like mad in the days counting down to its release: will the film be everything the first movie in 2003 (to its detractors) wasn't? Will Marvel Films go two-for-two in bringing its characters to the silver screen?
It certainly hasn't been an easy go since news leaked about the quarrel between the producers, director Louis Leterrier, and star Edward Norton over final cut. Edward Norton's hardly doing any publicity for the film, probably even less than the meager amount that was planned after he had his name removed from the writing credits once the WGA viewed the finished product. Sole screenwriting credit now goes to Zak Penn, who's been much-maligned as far as Marvel screenwriters go, having written the relatively disastrous "Elektra" and "X-Men: The Last Stand." (Seriously, wasn't the fact that he wrote "PCU," "Last Action Hero," and "Inspector Gadget" enough of a dead giveaway that his scripts are a steaming pile of suck?)
(Last warning: here there be GIANT FRICKIN' SPOILERS! You have been warned.)
Yet, I went to the film with as open a mind as a dyed-in-the-wool Hulk fan could. The first thing that struck me was how quickly the film was paced. Aside from the origin being played against the opening credits, the story opens in medias res and asks the audience to follow along as best they can. Benefitting from the larger budget and location shoots that the TV show couldn't pull off, the film begins in Brazil as Bruce Banner works as a lowly laborer at a bottling plant for some kind of green-hued energy drink. It's been well over a hundred days since his last metamorphosis. He's learning yoga, messing around with metronomes, training with a master of martial arts, learning techniques to manage his anger and suppress his inner beast. He's also learning Portuguese (watch for the Bill Bixby cameo!) and corresponding via an encrypted wireless connection with a mysterious colleague, "Mr. Blue," who promises a cure for his gamma exposure--if only he can give him a blood sample, and the data on his original exposure.
An accident happens with the equipment at the plant, and Banner cuts his hand, a drop of blood dribbling down to the conveyors below. He immediately shouts out, having the foreman stop the plant. He seals the cut with super glue and runs to wipe up the blood. He thinks he has it all...but no, as the conveyors start anew, one bottle escapes, a drop of blood smeared inside, then filled with the green beverage and shipped to the United States. Of course, the wrong person (Stan Lee, in an inspired bit) drinks the drink, gets gamma poisoning; thus the army is tipped off to the location of the esteemed Doctor, and the chase, as they say, is on.
General "Thunderbolt" Ross (William Hurt, not nearly equalling the depth of character of Sam Elliott) dispatches a crew headed up by Russian-born, British-bred Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) to do what the soldiers think is an easy "snatch-and-grab," but which they of course find is anything but when Banner transforms after an exciting, town-spanning chase sequence. The transformation and the lead-up to it are well-done, and director Leterrier gives the sequence ample mood by placing it mostly in the dark, not totally letting the cat out of the proverbial bag regarding the Hulk's overall appearance. It's during this sequence we hear the Hulk's first words, and the most he ever says at once during the film: "Leave me alone." It's also here where Blonsky first falls in hetero lust with the power of the Hulk--a power which he covets for himself. The crew gets their asses handed to them, of course, and the Hulk escapes (all the way to Guatemala). Blonsky wants to be better armed for the next time--and General Ross unearths Dr. Reinstein's super-soldier formula from WWII for a test-run.
I don't want to go too much further into the details of the movie itself. Of course, you know that Bruce reunites with Betty, who's dating psychiatrist Dr. Leonard Samson. The army again catches up with Bruce, who hulks out. Blonsky continues to evolve, and Bruce and Betty finally meet the enigmatic Mr. Blue, a biologist named Sam Sterns. Hijinks ensue, a cure is briefly found, and then Blonsky undergoes his ultimate transformation. Then the REALLY BIG BATTLE happens, and it's game over.
Louis Leterrier did a thankless job directing this movie in a way wholly unlike the 2003 film. The tone is much faster, but also more standard. There's no novel "comic-booky" editing style, just a lean, mean machine of narrative that may actually be a bit too lean. Whole pieces of the narrative are missing, including the opening sequence set in the Arctic and an entire sequence between Bruce and Leonard Samson (both shown in varying degrees in the trailers). The fear of the filmmakers to have any real emotional connection, any real drama, seems to have translated into an all-action film to the exclusion of any scenes that may actually shed three-dimensional light on the characters. Not that there isn't any character development to be found (it's mostly Blonsky's arc), it's just that there's so much action, it doesn't feel like the film has the editorial balance it needs in order to be truly successful in the same way as, say, this year's "Iron Man."
I've been withholding the answer to the most important question posed by anyone: How does the Hulk look? Does the CGI hold up? Is it better than the first film? Sadly, I thought Rhythm & Hues missed the mark with regard to the Hulk's actual look. He does look fake...serviceable, but I thought the 2003 incarnation looked and moved much better. (Truthfully, when you see a full body view of the Hulk, it honestly seemed like most of his muscles were in his legs, not his upper body.) Whereas the Hulk didn't look all that great aside from a few scenes, the Abomination looked nothing short of spectacular. The battle between the Hulk and the Abomination was done on a grand scale, and it didn't disappoint. It moved so quickly, I all but forgot about the flaws in the Hulk's design and just went with it.
Am I happy with the film? It's tough to say. You have your obligatory in-joke moments--cameos by Bix, Stan, and Lou; name-dropping of everything from SHIELD, to Captain America, to Jim Wilson, Rick Jones, and Jack McGee--and you have a narrative that tries to be an amped-up version of its television predecessor, but with many of the trappings of the source material. It's a mishmash, but a fun mishmash, provided you don't think too hard. I would have liked to see a bit more character development all around (including the restoration of those "lost" scenes) and a slightly different design for the Hulk himself, but what I saw was by no means terrible. I'll be seeing it at least once more in the theatres.
How did the crowd react? I heard applause with the Hulk's two-word catch phrase, HUGE applause with the arrival of Tony Stark at film's end, and moderate applause when the credits rolled. There were laughs to be had when Bruce and Betty attempted (but didn't succeed at) a little hanky-panky in a hotel room while on the way to New York. And yes, Bruce trips all over Portuguese and ends up slaughtering his classic catch-phrase from the 70s show.
"The Incredible Hulk" is an uneven but still impressive effort. Catch it in the theatre, then wait for the inevitable "Expanded Edition" Blu-Ray release.
Grade (the film): B+
Grade (the Hulk's CGI): C-
How much will it make opening weekend? $58 million