The Marvel Men are back. Iron Man – in the unlikely but delightful shape of Robert Downey Jr. – turned up this spring, and won over fanboys and know-nothings alike. Now, thumping into megaplexes, comes The Incredible Hulk.
Louis Leterrier's actioner is yet another telling of how scientist Bruce Banner gets zapped with gamma rays during a government experiment and, when provoked, morphs into a big green, mean machine. During the opening credits, we get a quick précis of what happened as Banner goes Hulk, hurts some co-workers and heads out for parts unknown.
What follows is a stunning aerial shot over the unimaginable breadth of Rio de Janiero's favelas. We drift in to find Banner (Edward Norton) living as an incognito gringo amid the dense hillside slums.
Only a square-jawed, self-important military commander in charge of a secret bio-engineering "super soldier" project would countenance sending in a special-forces team to extract a singularly dangerous dude from the notably dangerous warrens of Rio's favelas. And that man is Gen. Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross (William Hurt), who, by way of explanation for this extra-diplomatic extraction, barks: "As far as I'm concerned, that man's whole body is property of the U.S. Army!"
Ross puts top black-ops soldier Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) in charge of capturing Banner (or the Hulk), and so begins the chase. Banner initially escapes, employing a bit of trendy parkour to outrun the lumbering soldiers, but the attack causes him to morph into his enraged alter ego. He can dodge bullets, but not the awfulness of his new self.
When everybody gets back to the U.S., Hulk-amania runs wild: Banner reunites with his girlfriend, Betty (Liv Tyler); a secretive doctor offers help; Ross unloads lots of old-school cannon power, and Blonsky super-juices himself, becoming another bio-freak monster.
I liked the first scene of the Hulk, where in a dark, cluttered factory, we only see fleeting glimpses of some really big, powerful creature. But when the Hulk finally bursts into full view, he's so ... distracting. Green sure, but also rubbery looking, ill-proportioned and noticeably crafted from CGI. In his daylight fight scenes, the Hulk appears badly pasted into the scene's frantic activity, and gives the effect of a really large plastic action figure going nuts. (All the film's CGI isn't a loss: I liked the weird showdown between the Hulk and some sound waves, and the transformation scenes weren't bad.)
Hulk is two hours long and yet feels incomplete. Banner's brooding never amounts to anything substantial; there's surprisingly little conflict between him and his former ladylove; and in spite of a huge crash-boom-bang Manhattan brawl, the ending feels rushed. For the uninitiated, Hulk doesn't lay much groundwork for why or how the Hulk shifts from rageaholic to a fighter against evil, other than Betty's off-handed remark about maybe re-directing his energy.
Here's one big clue that the editing scissors were out in force: When the Blonsky-monster starts tearing apart 125th Street in Harlem, the camera cuts to a bystander for a blank-faced reaction shot, and damn, if it isn't Michael Kenneth Williams, a.k.a. the near-mythic killer Omar, from The Wire. You don't put this actor out on the street unless it's a set-up for some baddie vs. baddie in-joke ("Omar comin'! Omar comin'!"), but nothing transpires -- it's just that one pointless shot.
As is to be expected with serial-comic adaptations, there is an open-ended conclusion. A late-in-film cameo seems to confirm rumors that a rollout of Marvel's Avengers troupe is in the works. There's a weak dude in every gang, somebody more filler than fun, more brawn than brains, and so far, the Hulk's got that spot locked up.