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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Incredible Hulk (The)

I had an Incredible day yesterday and it was certainly unexpected. I mean, who’d have thought this version of The Incredible Hulk would be any better than the 2003 Ang Lee version, which is not to say that the Ang Lee Hulk was any good, mind you. As a matter of fact, it was so miserably bad that I was dreading seeing this reboot because I figured I’d seen enough of the not-so-incredible green guy in 2003 to last me forever. I’m sorry, but it was just the way I felt.

Still, for you, my Dear Readers, I sucked it up and wandered into the theater at the Essex Cinemas feeling a lot like I was on death row, or at least like I imagine it would be on death row, which I was sure couldn’t be much worse than waiting in line at the Post Office on April 15th or any time during the month of December. I’ve done both and I know after an interminable gasp of time, while praying for a swift and painless end, it never happens the way you hope it will. No, you can expect to suffer, and so I expected it again with The Incredible Hulk, but ~ guess what? ~ it didn’t hurt at all. As a matter of fact, I actually liked the silly thing. I liked it a lot.

Who knew? I blame Edward Norton. He is just too damned good an actor not to enjoy. Like Robert Downey, Jr., the unconventional choice to play this summer’s other Marvel superhero box office champ, Iron Man, Norton has long had a well-earned reputation as a “difficult” actor and someone with a tendency to choice artsy projects over mainstream cinema. When I first heard he was starring in
The Incredible Hulk I went to my bathroom, got some Q-tips, and cleaned my ears just to make sure I hadn’t gotten them clogged with shampoo residue or something. The same Edward Norton of The Painted Veil, The Illusionist and Frida fame was going to play the not-so-jolly green giant? Okay, so he did also make Death to Smoochy. It’s not like precedents haven’t been set before, but that’s the problem. He either makes great stuff or total crap, and this project didn’t exactly sound like ‘quality’ personified, if you know what I mean. It had the stench of the 2003 Hulk all over it, and that’s like having on dirty underpants when you go to see your brand new gynecologist. It’s going to be practically impossible to make a good first impression on your second visit no matter how fancy the lace and how much the FDS. The damage has been done.

Fortunately, this
Incredible Hulk is up for the challenge and manages to make you all but forget the bad taste left by its hideous earlier incarnation. Director Louis Leterrier (Transporter 1 & 2) and screenwriter Zak Penn (X-Men 3: The Last Stand) have worked together to create a film that is fast-paced and focuses as much on Bruce Banner (Norton) as it does on the title character and that is a very good thing since the Hulk isn’t much of a conversationalist and basically does little but tear stuff up and beat the crapola out of whoever is in his way. Bruce, on the other hand, is an infinitely more interesting and complicated soul and his life has been thrown into sheer hell by the experiment that went awry and accidently turned him into the Hulk when he was exposed to a massive overdose of gamma radiation. Since then, he has been on the run thanks to the relentless pursuit by Gen. Thaddeus 'Thunderbolt' Ross (William Hurt; Vantage Point), who wants to use Banner’s blood to create an army of what he believes can be “controlled” Hulk-like soldiers. What a tool.

With the army constantly nipping at his heels, the action is fast and more than furious. It borders on rocking in
James Bond country, especially in the first forty-five minutes of the film, when Banner is tracked down to the slums of Brazil and sent once again on the lam, jumping from rooftop-to-rooftop with an energy and skill Daniel Craig (or his stuntman) would envy.

Complicating all of this is the fact that Bruce’s partner in scientific experimentations as well as those in love is Betty Ross (Liv Tyler; The Strangers), as in 'Thunderbolt' Ross’s daughter. Uh-huh. You just know this is going to get messy. Don’t worry, it does.

Making matters even worse is the special services agent Thunderbolt has called in from Russia, Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth; Funny Games). He volunteers to try to replicate the accident that created the Hulk, with the forced “cooperation” of Dr. Samuel Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson; The Astronaut Farmer), who was secretly working to help find a cure for Banner. What Dr. Sterns doesn’t know is that Blonsky has already gotten a little something-something more injected into his system elsewhere, and so the resulting combo is quite an Abomination.

From here the film becomes a clash of the titans as the Hulk and the Abomination destroy large
parts of Harlem in their attempts to kill one another. Don’t they have any respect for all the gentrification that has been going on in that neighborhood in the last 25 years? Geez, in one night these two I-don’t know-whats manage to turn 125th Street from something half-way debonair back into being full-on ghetto. It’s enough to make a sister pull out her weave and weep!

I have to say that this was by far my least favorite part of the movie even though it was meant to be the climax and CGI show-stopper. Well, it stopped the show for me, but not in the way the filmmakers had in mind. What I saw was just another in a long line of fantasy films that included such scenes: Superman 2, King Kong, Godzilla, Cloverfield, War of the Worlds… I think I have New York City destruction fatigue. Strange too, that all of the above except Superman 2 were made post-9/11, which seems almost like feeding into the dirty little fantasies of prospective terrorists everywhere.

Be sure to look for a few great cameos. 85-year old Hulk creator Stan Lee shows up (as he has in the other movies based on the characters he has dreamed up, including Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, X-Men, Daredevil, and Iron Man.) There’s also a clever tip of the hat to Bill Bixby, who played Banner in the ‘70s tv show and manages to make a brief appearance even though he died back in 1993, while his surviving counterpart, Hulk Lou Ferrigno shows up as a security guard and supplies the voice of this CGI created Hulk. As if these aren’t enough, Marvel’s other summer superhero, Iron Man, breezes in using his civilian identity of Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.; Lucky You) , teasing of future adventures uniting the two with a band of other superheroes led by Nick Fury.

The CGI Hulk and Abomination aren’t always completely convincing, but that is the curse of limited technology. I’d hoped the Hulk would have advanced more since his Ang Lee days when he looked downright cartoonish at times, but he still has a ways to go. I think Leterrier understands the shortcomings of the art and so cleverly keeps his creature in the shadows for most of the movie so the “seams” don’t show, which, keeps the Hulk all the scarier and not quite so looking like an overgrown asparagus.

My friend Melanie, always a charmer, suggested as she read what I was writing here that I wind up
this column with the obvious self-help advice one can learn from The Incredible Hulk: As one grows older, and your own “seams begin to appear, it might not hurt to go for dimmer lighting and companions with poorer vision. In that case, I’m going to stop writing now so I can break my perfect husband’s glasses and then run over to Rags and Riches and see about getting some blackout drapes immediately. Meanwhile, you should check out The Incredible Hulk. Seriously.

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