Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Movie Review: "The Incredible Hulk"

Bruce Banner ponders whether anyone qualified is offering anger management classes in the slums of Rio.

Prelude: A ton of reviews insist on comparing "The Incredible Hulk" with its fellow Marvel production,"Iron Man" (with mostly unfavorable results). If I may say so, I don't think that's really fair. These are two completely different movies with two completely different protagonists. Bruce Banner isn't Tony Stark, and it's unfair to expect him to be someone he isn't. Only Tony Stark is Tony Stark, and, really, that's the way it should be. As for me, if I walked into that cinema with the specific intention of comparing the Big Green Guy with the Shiny Flying Suit, then I might as well stay home and save my money, because everybody knows that I absolutely loved "Iron Man" and Robert Downey Jr.'s riveting performance. I frankly doubt anyone can rival that anytime soon -- except Christian Bale. BUT! I went into the theater with Cine-Sib with the intention of seeing "The Incredible Hulk" in its own context and as a movie in its own right, with Edward Norton as the leading man. My first impression was favorable, and I haven't changed my mind.

One more thing. While it's not fair to compare "The Incredible Hulk" with "Iron Man," I do think that it's perfectly legitimate to compare it with Ang Lee's previous "Hulk" film. In this case, I think the new version, directed by Louis Leterrier (of "Transporter" fame), is better -- but of course this is a matter of taste. And I prefer Hulk a la "Transporter" to Hulk a la "Crouching Tiger," OK? Maybe this means that I'm simply not interested in existential philosophy. Maybe I'm a shallow, simple-minded movie fan who wants more "Hulk Smash" and less "cogito -- or, rather-- irascor ergo Hulk." Fine. If you want the Zen of Hulk, go rent the Ang Lee version. I did watch the Lee version again after seeing the Leterrier Hulk (I'm a professional nerd, after all, and I believe in being thorough in research), and my former criticisms of that film still stand. Let's go to the full review of the 2008 reboot, shall we?

One of the most noticeable features of the Leterrier Hulk is the pacing. As in, there's plenty of it, and it's fast. After the seemingly interminable plodding of the Lee version, Leterrier's lightning fast pacing is a joy. The movie hits the ground running from the first scene, and it does not slow down. In fact, the opening sequence itself -- interspersed with the opening credits -- does in a few efficient moments what could otherwise have taken up far longer. It tells the origin story of the Hulk with a few well-chosen images of the gamma-ray accident that produces the Hulk Hyde to Banner's Dr. Jekyll, and so we begin the actual movie already in the middle of the story, with Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) hiding in the slums of Rio in Brazil as he carries his deadly secret within. The wryly humorous labeling of "days without incident" adds to the sense that Banner's problem is an ever-present sword of Damocles hovering over him; let him lose his temper just once, let his pulse race just a bit too much, and Banner the man transmogrifies into the Hulk, a beast he cannot control. And Banner's fear of this is chillingly real, as is the presentation of the consequences this had had on his life. The university-based scientist and researcher is reduced to a fugitive living as a manual laborer in a drink-bottling factory in the sketchy slums of Rio de Janeiro.

Another great feature is Leterrier's deft handling of the story. The action is always intense and, yes, sometimes ridiculous, but whether you think this is good or bad depends on your point of view (the Cine-Sib whooped with glee and shouted out, "It looks like MICHAEL BAY!" -- and he meant it as a compliment). I'm trying to avoid spoilers, but I simply must point you to a couple of outstanding sequences: the cat-and-mouse chase that has Banner running through the slums and over the rooftops of Rio (this reminded me of Jason Bourne) and also the first sequence in which the Hulk appears. Leterrier treats it almost like a scene from a horror flick and shows the audience how not seeing a monster can be even more terrifying than seeing one. I'll add one more note: the subtle inclusion of a bit of humor along the way that helps lift the film from the relentless gloom (a quip about the New York City subway made me giggle out loud -- oh, I've been on that subway!). Somehow the film manages to touch on the deeper issues of Banner's existential problems without making too ham-fisted an effort of it and without belaboring all the fun and action out of the movie.

I have to give kudos to Edward Norton as Bruce Banner. Within the first few minutes of the film, he managed to do what Eric Bana could not in two hours: Norton made me care about his character -- really, actually care. Norton didn't seem to me at first to be an obvious choice to play the tormented scientist; I'd seen him previously only in rather creepy roles in "Fight Club" and "The Italian Job," but there is a quality about him that he draws from and turns into a viable, believable Banner. Norton's not a flashy actor, not an actor whom one associates with lively energy. His is an understated ability to ponder on-screen, to hint and then plumb real depths. He gives the sense that there is more than meets the eye. With Norton, silence can speak volumes, and he proves that the axiom of "still waters run deep" can translate into nuanced character performances. I'd never been much of a Norton fan, per se; I always thought his rather thin, reedy voice was unimpressive -- but here in this film, it works perfectly in his embodiment of Banner the scientist. I couldn't help feeling for Banner the human being; despite his super-strong Hulk persona -- indeed because of that persona -- Banner the man is terribly vulnerable and ultimately alone (and long-time Hulk fans will appreciate the haunting reprise of a certain musical theme here). Beyond that, though, the quietly magnetic Norton deals with complexities that would easily defeat a lesser actor, but Norton is able to command everything from tormented love, indefatigable determination, heart-dissolving fear, and a tough, enduring courage that ennobles the man.

An aside here: I think finally a few filmmakers have grasped the idea that casting actual actors in superhero movies makes better superhero movies overall (well, DUH). The casting of proven, talented, chameleon-like character actors like Christian Bale (Batman), Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), and now Edward Norton (the Hulk) have all been creative decisions that helped elevate the films from camp morass to a level of good, even great entertainment. I want more of this -- a lot more. Listen up, moviemakers!

Norton's performance is key, and it is the standout in a cast that is -- to be honest -- desultory. Other characters of varying quality include Liv Tyler as Betty Ross, the love interest who hasn't much to do here (but still more than her Jennifer Connelly doppelganger), William Hurt as Betty's estranged father, the general who is out to capture the Hulk, and Tim Roth as Emil Blonsky, the creepily violent military uniform who eventually turns into the Abomination. The Sibling and I agree too that the Hulk persona, aka the Big Green Guy, is drawn with a slightly lighter touch here. Yes, he's still a leaf-colored embodiment of the id gone wild, but this Hulk is able to speak . . . and even able to hint at a personality and life within the monstrosity. This Hulk is capable of speech. OK, well, one word, but it's a word that hints at a soul inside. And all this for me is a far superior presentation of the problematic humanity of the Hulk/Banner.

Other good points: the extensive series of nods and homages to the comic book universe and its fans. There's an amusing note about stretchy purple shorts that made the Cine-Sib laugh. The cameos especially were a nice touch. There's even a cameo by the Banner/Hulk of TV fame, Bill Bixby. But wait, you say, Bixby's dead. Oh, but gentle viewer, you should know that being dead is no reason not to have a Hollywood movie cameo! The Lou Ferrigno cameo was fantastic, and made the Cine-Sib cheer. As for the most anticipated cameo of all, I won't be spoiling it for you because the cat is long out of the bag and everybody knows now: Downey appears as Tony Stark at the end of the movie. (Sharp-eyed viewers will notice the appearance of weapons stamped with the Stark Industries name at the beginning of the film -- a nice bookending effect.) This cameo was a great bit, but it might have actually been harmful to the movie it was meant to support. I mean, honestly, after watching Stark saunter into the frame with the grace of a jungle cat in a designer suit, flashing his devilish grin and oozing his signature charisma, the first thing I thought was, "I just gotta go see 'Iron Man' again!" I didn't want to see him leave the scene. (I guess I'm a fickle movie fan. Here I am, telling you how good Norton is, but show me Downey's Stark, and I start purring about him instead. Oh, tsk tsk tsk and shame on me.)

"The Incredible Hulk" does have its problems, no doubt. While the Hulk himself is a better product of CGI animation than his predecessor, the CGI rendition of the Abomination looked . . . well, artificial, like a Halloween funhouse prop. To me he looked more silly than scary, frankly. The final monster mash between the Hulk and the Abominable is your basic action smackdown between two huge figures, but hey, even so, at the end of the musclebound mayhem, there's a moment that makes you wonder -- how much humanity is in the Hulk? More than you thought?

One practical matter that bothered me: how did Banner get from the jungles of Guatemala to the college campus where his former colleague and object of affection Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) is?

Also, one major idea of the film centers on human relationships. I was endlessly grateful that this flick didn't have the overwrought father-issues of the previous one, but I think it strayed a bit in the other direction. I thought the relationship between Betty Ross and her father could have been better done with just a few lines more here and there. As it stood, it seemed a bit flat to me; perhaps too much had been left on the cutting room floor in favor of the quite good interaction between Bruce and Betty (well, given the limited parameters of Liv Tyler's scripted role as Betty).

In the end? "The Incredible Hulk" may not be quite incredible, and it's not up to the excellence of "Batman Begins" or "Iron Man," but it's certainly a good, solid movie that provides a worthy addition to Marvel's new universe. If Iron Man is the handsome, flamboyant troublemaker in this comic book family, then the Hulk is the quiet, rather bookish, thoughtful one. To each his (or her) own. The Marvel cinema universe is off to a great beginning with its one-two punch combination of these hero flicks.

"The Incredible Hulk" runs for 114 minutes and is rated PG-13 for partial nudity, a brief almost-love scene, some frightening images, and animated violence.

Mad Minerva gives this movie a grade of a solid B for entertainment, actual acting by Norton, and good directing by Louis Leterrier. Yes, I would happily pay to see it again, too -- and probably will. (And this is something I never said -- nor will say -- about the Ang Lee version.)

RottenTomatoes gives "The Incredible Hulk" a fresh rating of 68%.

This is the official website for the film.

Nerd Notes:

The entire movie resonates on a nerd level that's both incredibly moving and yet utterly different from the rock-and roll spirit and total tech-gasms of "Iron Man." Here the human element reigns supreme in the plight of Bruce Banner, a science geek who has to face situations for which he never planned -- and against which he has only his willpower, intelligence, and courage.

Also . . . Frankly, I found it extremely cathartic (oh, grad school frustrations) to see the Hulk and Blonsky's men tear up an entire college campus with fireballs, heavy weaponry, and things that go "boom." Take THAT, administration building!

UPDATE: The Sibling reviews the film here.


Anonymous said...

Too many words...no pictures. How bout a 300-500 word abriged version. Look up curt, laconic, concise in da dictionary. Dang, I need a nap.

My review in haiku:

Don't piss the man off
Green man will make you sorry
I'd see it again

Pat Patterson said...

I was right Edward Norton is simply playing the same character over and over. Plus the poster looks like one of those you might see in a police station warning people of the dangers of getting rides with strangers. Or an after school special on pedophilia.

But I did see Iron Man again, this time for $3.00 at a 10:00 AM showing. Now I'm waiting for the DVD.