Friday, 13 June 2008

The Incredible Hulk

Director: Louis Leterrier
Starring: Edward Norton, Tim Roth & Liv Tyler

An enjoyable superhero film that improves greatly over the last attempt to bring The Hulk to the big screen whilst being almost as enjoyable as 2008’s other Marvel Comics film: Iron Man.

The Incredible Hulk is one of Marvel Comics most well known, and loved characters. It is, then, hard to imagine how it could be difficult to adapt the character for the big screen successfully. The Incredible Hulk though, has a lot of expectation to live up to. This is the second attempt to bring the character to the big screen after Ang Lee first attempted to do so in 2003 with Hulk which failed to please either Lee’s fans (a superhero film seeming too mundane) or Comic/Blockbuster fans (Hulk being too slow and introspective and lacking fun or thrills). The Incredible Hulk not only has to prove it is better than its big screen predecessor; it also follows the warmly received Iron Man. So, is The Incredible Hulk, this time played by Edward Norton instead of Eric Bana, as good as we hope it to be? Not quite, but it still good fun and is certainly a big improvement over the 2003 adaptation.

The Incredible Hulk sets out to distance itself from Hulk immediately. Not only featuring an all new cast, it avoids the pitfalls Hulk faced in presenting the character’s origins by speeding through it during the opening credits (also depicting a somewhat different origin that seen in Hulk). As the story begins, it is now six months later. Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) is on the run, in Rio de Janeiro, and trying to find a cure whilst also learning to control his anger which would transform him back into the Hulk. Skipping past the origin is a risky gambit but one that ultimately pays off as the resulting film is a far leaner, meaner affair than before with relevant bits of history seen in short, sharp flashbacks throughout the first half of the film.

Whilst seeking a cure and trying to remain hidden, it isn’t too long before the US Government gets a lead on Bruce Banner and send in an elite military unit lead by an impressive Tim Roth. Instead of the initial confrontation leading immediately to a big conflict with Banner as The Hulk, we instead get a thrilling foot chase throughout the shanty town streets outside Rio de Janeiro, perhaps inspired by the Bourne films, before ending up in a factory where The Hulk finally takes over. Even here, we don’t get a full glimpse of the Hulk with him being kept mostly to the shadows and the result is a more thrilling set piece which is less reliant on CGI than you might expect from a summer blockbuster. The chase soon moves to the USA as Banner seeks out a scientist who has offered him help whilst reconnecting with an old flame, Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) and ultimately ending up in a Battle Royale when the government loses control of a more dangerous Hulk-like soldier which Banner must defeat in the streets of Harlem, New York.

While the final conflict is fairly entertaining and its CGI looks great, it is ultimately a somewhat hollow, mindless slugfest. The Incredible Hulk succeeds more in sequences that show restraint on the CGI front or allow our actors to be seen, the already mentioned chase in Rio being one example, another being a battle on a university campus between the Hulk and a military unit with some inventive sequences including a fully formed Hulk fighting a Tim Roth’s hard man.

As good as the CGI is it doesn’t beat actors. Fortunately The Incredible Hulk has several good actors on hand. Edward Norton, while an unlikely choice to lead a superhero franchise, maintains the right level of jitteriness in a character that must keep control of his emotions in the face of even mundane confrontations. Whilst it is not Norton’s best performance to date, it is certainly enjoyable and believable. Meanwhile, Tim Roth is excellent as Banner’s opposite number, a military man who is disciplined, using his anger against his enemies until he sees power in anger in the Hulk that eclipses his own. Tim Blake Nelson steals his few scenes as, scientist, Samuel Sterns (foreshadowing a future role for the character) while William Hurt is decent as General Ross, the man out to capture Banner and also father to Banner’s love interest Betty Ross. If any character feels underdeveloped its Betty Ross, played by Liv Tyler, who plays a standard love interest/woman in distress role with few scenes that develop the character.

There are a few faults in the film that prevent it from being as enjoyable as Iron Man. The Incredible Hulk’s plot, while generally enjoyable, is a little thin going from finding a cure, run from the government, fight and escape and then repeat right up until the end and while this was a common theme for the character in comics and even for the 1970/80s television series it would be nice for as much invention in the plot as is seen in the action sequences. There are also a few attempts at humor that fall flat trying to poke fun at old in-jokes regarding the Hulk character (the purple shorts being one example) but miss their mark when delivered by an actor like Edward Norton.

Overall The Incredible Hulk is a successful adaptation. It is mostly enjoyable and certainly a stronger start for a franchise than previous attempts especially following Iron Man and a sly tease towards the end that suggests a definite direction for the character in future films.

Rating: 3/5