Sunday, November 23, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Incredible Hulk (2008)

To quote Tim Roth's Emil Blonsky (a.k.a. The Abomination): "I'm pissed off and ready for round three...."

And that's so because this cinematic Incredible Hulk -- Round Two for the film franchise -- isn't much of an improvement over Round One; the ponderous 2003 Ang Lee model.

You remember that movie, right? The one with the mutant poodles...and Nick Nolte.

Sure, the visual effects are moderately improved in this re-vamp of a re-imagination, but the titular green behemoth -- rendered by CGI once more -- still looks like a weightless cartoon at worst, and a very advanced video game avatar at best.

Yet unconvincing special effects aren't even the central problem. At least not until The Incredible Hulk's dreary third act, wherein inferior special effects remain all the bored audience is left with.

No, the problems here are much more insidious, fatally interspersed throughout the movie's DNA like pulsating gamma radiation. Specifically, Louis Leterrier's sequel boasts dramatic lapses in performance, tone, and narrative logic. These numerous failures render the film a bad B movie writ large; a weak script lacquered with a big budget gloss. Ed Norton takes over for Eric Bana in the central role, and in theory there should be no problem believing that his Banner leads a double life. After all, we carry with us the memory of another memorable Norton schizophrenic, Tyler Durden. Unfortunately, Norton sleepwalks through his leading role here, adequately registering an interior life, but never allowing the audience to really excavate it. In short, Norton acts like he's slumming.

And given the overall quality of the enterprise, perhaps he is. One cannot help but compare Norton's sleepy performance in The Incredible Hulk with Robert Downey's kinetic, vibrant Iron Man performance. Different characters, of course, but Norton's Banner comes off as a cipher. Bill Bixby was never a cipher...

The Incredible Hulk actually begins promisingly, with a well-paced, interesting sequence set in Brazil. It's 158 days since Bruce Banner's (Edward Norton's) last hulk-out, and he's busy trying to discover a cure for his Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde syndrome.

Simultaneously, Banner is participating in meditation and breathing exercises to help control his anger, the very trigger that spurs the transformation into the not-very-jolly green giant. Meanwhile, our hero wastes his brilliant mind toiling away in a local bottling factory. But one day there's an accident in the factory, and Banner's blood is spilled...

Before long, General Ross (William Hurt) and his minions -- among them Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) -- trace Banner to Brazil and attempt to catch him there. There's an exciting chase.

Banner transforms into the Hulk and evades his hunters for good (brushing off bullets like they're mosquitoes...). Banner then returns to the United States, to Culver University in Virginia, and encounters the love of his life, Dr. Betty Ross (Liv Tyler). Naturally, she still loves him, and wants to help him. There's a droll scene here in which the long-suffering, long-separated couple almost makes love, but Banner fears a premature...transformation...and begs off. I guess it happens to the best of us...

Meanwhile, the dogged but unrealistically-reckless General Ross realizes he requires a super soldier to capture the Hulk, and begins injecting Blonsky with a dangerous serum that will improve the aging grunt's speed, dexterity and strength. There's a battle on campus, but the Hulk escapes. Again.

Afterwards, Bruce and Betty race for New York City, where the mysterious Dr. Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson) might have a cure.

But then General Ross tries to capture Banner again (see a trend developing here?) Then -- injected with Hulk blood -- Blonsky transforms into the monstrous Abomination and inexplicably starts attacking his former brethren in the Army. And, well, it takes a monster to beat a monster. So Banner is dropped (literally...) into the battle zone. Cue the special effects...

And, well, that's it. That's everything. The Incredible Hulk is structured as a series of increasingly witless chases and escapes leading up to a rather underwhelming final battle. Chase. Attack. Escape. Rinse and repeat.

Director Louis Leterrier has apparently studied the contemporary superhero movie playbook, and he adheres closely to it here, with precious little deviation or ingenuity. So we get the touching-if-stale doomed love affair scenario (Banner and Ross), familiar to us from Spider-Man (2002), Batman Begins (2005) and every other superhero movie since the dawn of time. Here, there are also echoes of the King Kong, beauty-and-the- beast syndrome (evident as well in Hellboy).

We also get the ubiquitous Stan Lee cameo (see: Iron Man, Fantastic Four, The Hulk, etc.). There's even the familiar villain who wants to utilize the hero (or his technology) as a devastating weapon (see: Iron Man).

There's even the by-now de rigueur "Superhero Triumphant" shot which virtually closes out film. You know how the Dark Knight struts like a gargoyle atop Gotham's noir-ish skyscrapers? Or how Spider-Man swings through Manhattan's glass and steel valleys? Or how Superman orbits the Earth after a day's work? Well here, The Incredible Hulk lumbers from NYC rooftop to rooftop, until the picture fades out into glorious sunlight.

Yawn. When the film was finally over, I agreed with The Abomination, who -- during the final battle -- asked the Incredible Hulk a pertinent question. "Is that all you've got?"

Movie, is that all you've got?

But I suppose this brand of faux-angsty, solemn phantasmagoria is precisely what the majority of franchise fans desire. A superhero movie that plays it relentlessly safe and doesn't rock the boat or reach for artistic heights. What seems obvious here is that producers Hurd and Arad learned their lesson from Ang Lee's ambitious failure and learned it hard. They decided not to commit one daring or original idea to celluloid in this sequel. Better to make a movie of extended chases and monster wrestling matches than something interesting about the human condition, about the "rage" we all control. Underneath everything else in this movie is the barely audible, frightened whisper:

Don't make fanboys angry. You wouldn't like your box office receipts when they're angry...

So what you get in The Incredible Hulk is a reflexive pandering to the base demographic so obvious and desperate it would make even a serial panderer like Sarah Palin blush with embarrassment. Thus we get endless in-jokes and references to the comic-book and TV show. Look, there's Bill Bixby (in footage from The Courtship of Eddie's Father)! Look, there's Lou Ferrigno! Listen, they just mentioned reporter Jack McGee! Why, we even get a franchise cross-over scene with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and General Ross that forecasts an Avengers movie! One meant, no doubt, to cause spontaneous fan orgasms. Man, this movie is such a bad-ass mo fo! Isn't it cool that the whole Marvel movie universe is connected?

Sure. But it would have been cooler if The Incredible Hulk was...good.

To my shock, film critics largely praised this sub-par effort. In doing so, they failed to mention the egregious lapses in tone, particularly during the cringe-inducing moment wherein Banner and Ross arrive in NYC. They promptly and ridiculously term the Big Apple "the most aggressive" city on Earth (Gimme a break! They should see the Wal-Mart in Monroe on a Saturday night...). They then take an exaggerated and dangerous ride in a cab. Betty gets mad and screams at the negligent cab driver, prompting an embarrassed-looking Norton to note that he knows some techniques for anger management. This scene is so ridiculous, so campy, so piped-in from another planet, that you just wince with discomfort. It's so bad you can't believe your eyes and ears.

Soon after, it's the audience's anger-management that's tested as Tim Blake Nelson (Samuel Stern) delivers one of the worst supporting performances I've seen in a superhero film since Lambert Wilson in Catwoman (2004). He plays Stern like a crazy, hyper-active clown. Maybe he was inspired by the 1960s Batman, but regardless his performance sticks out like a sore thumb. Every trace of believability seeps out of the picture when he's on-screen mugging.

Also, if you delve at all into the details of The Incredible Hulk, the story doesn't make any sense. For one thing, General Ross appears to be the highest ranking, most powerful general in the United States, because he launches full-scale attacks (replete with roaring gunships and sonic cannons...) on an American college campus with no blow-back either from the Army or the President himself. The attack makes the nightly news (and the Hulk is even recorded on a civilian phone camera). But nobody in the U.S. government seems to take notice. Nobody panics. Nobody makes a statement. General Ross apparently just has carte blanche to do whatever the hell he wants, including the conspicuous war waging on American soil.

And why does Blonsky immediately turn against his former allies in Armed Forces once he becomes the Abomination? The movie establishes that as the Hulk, Banner remains true, at least somewhat, to his human character. He remembers Betty and is gentle with her; protective. So a career army officer like Blonsky -- one who has fought with these men in the trenches literally all his life -- becomes a hulkish monster and turns instantly on them? That one's never explained either.

But more to the point, the film's narrative largely invalidates Banner's point of view. He is on the run (and in hiding) because he doesn't want the American military to create a league of super soldiers. Well, first off, Ross already has a different (non Hulk variety...) super soldier serum. It works, and he uses it on Blonsky.

And secondly, when the Abomination runs wild, Banner is dropped into the fight essentially as -- yep -- a super soldier, to defeat him; thus proving the validity of the program. The whole "creating super soldier" thing is out of the bag, whether Banner is a conscientious objecter or not. If Banner is willing to transform into the Hulk to fight a monster in New York (the most aggressive city on Earth!), isn't it kind of selfish that he wouldn't let the American military develop a Hulk in the event that -- for example -- Iran developed an Islamic Hulk and went nuts with it on the streets of Baghdad?

Yep, this Bruce Banner is a flip-flopper. He was against super-soldiers before he was for them.

I find it highly ironic that the most popular screen version of the Hulk remains the Bixby/Ferrigno TV series, which ran on American television for four years (from 1978-1982). That 30-year old Kenneth Johnson series had little money and no computer technology, but the stories had one crucial element: heart.

They concerned things like loss, obsession, redemption and shame, and Banner -- despite his curse -- made a difference in the life of ordinary people. that's what the show as about, The Hulk coming to the rescue of the little guy; the exploited, the weak, the poor, even the abused.

Today, The Hulk (2003) and The Incredible Hulk (2008) boast big stars and big special effects, yet concern nothing human. They are monstrous in the worst sense of the word, obsessed with big digital juggernauts duking it out. Our emotions are never engaged, and therefore watching this film's, finale is a bit like watching someone else play a video game while you wait your turn at the joystick.

Every once and while, there's a fancy move that earns your admiration, but otherwise, you're not really involved.

I know it's not easy being green, but come on ...strike two, Hulk. Bring on Round Three.

1 comment:

  1. I have to agree with you on most counts. On the whole, I quite enjoyed the film, though as a very clear homage to Bixby's show, it did lack, as yous say, "the heart". Banner is a story/monster cypher. There is one moment in Brazil when he looks to help his fellow worker that shows a hint of Bixby's Banner backbone, but beyond that, he's drippy and uncharismatic.

    While structurally, this was more true to the Hulk that Ang Lee's bizarre take, it does lose its charm after the first act in Brazil and I think a mistake was in such a severe edit of the middle act character sequences to establish Banner's background and motivations.

    You mentioned Downey Jr - I have to say if there's one actor who I felt carried an onscreen charm similar to Bixby, it's Downey Jr (even if they very are different in real life). He'd have made a far stronger Banner.

    The mistake - again - has been made in not focusing enough to make Banner the lead, not necessarily the Hulk, which was the skill in Johnson's production. You found yourself wanting more Banner than Hulk. This film and Ang Lee's failed on this score.

    Good review.