The Incredible Hulk (2008)

The best parts of The Incredible Hulk unfold in Brazil, where the fugitive Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) keeps a low profile, keeps his pulse rate even lower, and is overqualified for his day-labor gig at a soda-bottling factory. Bruce even has a personal trainer, who instructs him to breathe out his anger from his abdomen. He seems to lead a livable, if grungily modest, life here; the sequence was actually shot in Rio de Janeiro, so it has a bustling authenticity, with the buildings piled high and the people densely packed in the streets. It’s a credible hiding place for a scientist who turns into a gigantic green creature of rage when something upsets him. The city must calm him down, too, since we’re told he’s gone well over a hundred days without an “incident.”

Most of the film’s remainder was shot in Canada, where it gives itself over to anonymous backdrops in front of which computer-generated mayhem will be inserted later. The Incredible Hulk, as you may have heard, is a stripped-down-for-action reboot of this franchise, which got off to an idiosyncratic and unpopular start with Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk. I found the Lee film fascinating and unstable, a psychologically thick meditation on repression and daddy-hatred. Many fans would’ve settled for more “Hulk smash,” and in the new film they get it. Directed by Louis Leterrier, who got into similar territory with Jet Li in Unleashed (Danny the Dog overseas), The Incredible Hulk has a more interesting and committed cast than its predecessor. Norton, Liv Tyler, William Hurt, Tim Roth: in just about every case this is an acting upgrade.

Yet we see the writing on the wall here: this is the second Marvel Comics movie adaptation actually to be produced by Marvel, after Iron Man, and both films pack exactly as much personality as their actors bring with them, and eventually collapse into CGI footage of behemoths pounding each other. The Incredible Hulk goes farther than Iron Man, which at least gave us several scenes of Robert Downey Jr. and Jeff Bridges parrying verbally before they climbed into their respective battle suits; here, I don’t recall Edward Norton and Tim Roth acting opposite each other at all. Roth plays Emil Blonsky, a hard-bitten soldier hired by the Hulk’s nemesis General Ross (Hurt) to find and capture Bruce before he hulks out. Looking as though he’s still carrying some resentment from being so brutally manhandled in Funny Games, Roth moves through the film like a bullet, keeping Blonsky away from stock evil and grounded in a simple desire to fight one last great fight before his body gives out.

As usual, Norton expresses a furtive intelligence; whatever backstage drama he allegedly caused was worth it. He sells decency effortlessly, as when Bruce sees a female bottling-plant coworker cringing under the unwanted attention of a lout, almost walks away — afraid that the guy will start a fight and trigger a hulk-out — and then goes in to rescue her anyway. Norton also brings out the best in the usually uneven Liv Tyler, as Bruce’s true love Betty Ross (the general’s daughter). Tyler plays a lovely scene with the Hulk, in a cave under a thunderstorm; the way she advises him to watch his head when he ducks into the cave has a surreal tenderness. It’s a fine, moody sequence that just about outdoes the overwrought entirety of Peter Jackson’s King Kong.

The movie is fun enough, and it satisfied me as a lifelong Hulk fan (there are many in-jokes to tickle the fans, from a Bill Bixby cameo on a TV to Bruce looking askance at an oversized pair of purple pants). I think I prefer the Ang Lee version, which took the premise to bizarre and unexpected places; Lee, rather quixotically, tried to make art out of it — he didn’t quite realize he was supposed to make a commercial for Hulk toys. Louis Leterrier is more of an action man, and when Blonsky becomes a dark mirror on the Hulk — the Abomination — the vehicles fly up in the air and fireballs chase pedestrians up and down the streets of New York. It’s a comic book writ large, all right. But I still wished I could see more of Bruce in the Hulk and vice versa, more of Edward Norton beneath the CGI. Maybe next time.

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