Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk is a case of “good for what it is” writ large. It very much is what it is. Those of you who are predisposed to like movies more or less faithfully adapted from superhero comic books are apt to call it “awesome” and a vast improvement over Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003). Those of us with no emotional investment in the sanctity of comics are probably going to be slightly less enthused, and will likely miss Lee’s stylistic flourishes and deeper characterization. It all comes down to a difference in what you want. With Lee—for good or ill—you get a personal vision. With Leterrier, let’s face it, you get the guy who made The Transporter. From a comic-book purist’s standpoint, that may be a plus. Leterrier is definitely the go-to guy if you want “Hulk smash!”
Looked at without the glow of fandom or a childhood fondness for the TV show starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, the movie is still a perfectly reasonable entertainment of the superhero kind. (Sorry, my Bill Bixby childhood memories come from My Favorite Martian and my adolescent ones from The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.) This movie is not a sequel to Lee’s film, but a vague kind of reboot that astutely assumes the viewer doesn’t need another “origins of the Hulk” story. Instead, the film offers a shorthand version of the events that have driven Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) into hiding in the Rio slums as a day laborer in a soft-drink-bottling plant. These scenes are pretty good and might have made an interesting movie in themselves, but an accident where some Hulkian Banner blood finds its way into a bottled drink brings General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt in one of Sam Elliott’s disused mustaches) looking for him.
Ross’s mission is to capture Banner—with the aid of crackerjack soldier Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) and lots of extras dressed as soldiers. Ross wants to use Banner’s blood to create a whole army of Hulk soldiers. Maybe someone should tell Ross that back in 1942 George Zucco was out to create an army of werewolves to defeat the Nazis and it ended badly. And much like Zucco, it never seems to occur to Ross that there might be a few inherent drawbacks to this scheme—like directing who the Hulk soldiers would be fighting, and rounding up the Hulks afterwards. But there’s no reasoning with these gung-ho types.
None too surprisingly, this is all easier planned than done. Banner Hulkifies and causes major property damage before beating a hasty retreat. What makes this work as well as it does lies in the decision to keep the CGI Hulk in the shadows or fleeting glimpses. But this can’t last, and it doesn’t. Soon there’s a lot of full-frontal Hulk with all the CGI that implies. The word is this looks convincing enough to a generation raised on video games. Fine, but it looks cartoonish to me, and my interest flags accordingly.
The bulk of the film then is a buildup to the big fight between the Hulk and the Abomination (the CGI character Emil Blonsky becomes). The scene could be titled “The Hulk Comes to Harlem,” since the Hulk-Abomination smackdown starts in front of the Apollo Theater. Actually, the fight—for all its cartoonishness—is well staged. It’s less silly than the continent-leaping nonsense that climaxed Lee’s Hulk, and it feels less perfunctory than the ending of the otherwise superior Iron Man.
The major drawback to the film stems from the fact that the characters aren’t all that interesting. Edward Norton indulges in a lot of high-toned moping, but there’s not much to the role at the end of the day. There’s subtext for days in a hero who offers the excuse that he can’t get conjugal with his girlfriend (Liv Tyler) because it doesn’t do to get him excited, but the movie’s not going down that path. And Norton’s über-serious approach seems even more dull coming hot on the heels of Robert Downey Jr. (who shows up here, doing Norton no favors) in Iron Man. Yes, the Gloomy Gus aspect is inherent in the character, but Norton’s humorlessness aggravates the situation. Really, the only person seeming to have any fun in the movie is Tim Blake Nelson as Samuel Sterns, the scientist who tries to cure Banner. If you’re making a big, noisy action film, a little fun ought to be a requisite.
What fun there is comes from little touches—like the clever way of securing a cameo for the late Bill Bixby and the use of Lou Ferrigno in a small role and as the voice of the Hulk—and the generally well-executed action scenes. That’s enough to entertain most of us, and probably more than enough for the fans. Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action violence, some frightening sci-fi images and brief suggestive content.