The Incredible Hulk (review)

Not Easy Being Green

It sounds like praising with faint damns to say that Edward Norton and Tim Roth are so much more interesting to watch onscreen than their cartoon alter egos are. I mean, duh, right? Of course real human actors are always more interesting than CGI monsters. But here, I’m not kidding: these guys are supremely brilliant talents, and yet they’re so unshowy about it that you don’t appreciate the fullness of their genius until it gets yanked away from us.
It’s sort of bizarre, actually, why anyone would chose to make The Incredible Hulk this way: an hour and a half of well-crafted fantasy action and pretty intense superhero drama performed by powerful actors and commanded by a director with the know-how to pull off a less-is-more aesthetic… and then a final half hour that’s all-out, nonstop, cartoon-on-cartoon ultraviolence stripped of all character, all narrative, all filmmaking logic. Everything just grinds to a halt so that the Hulk and the vicious irradiated, mutated man-thing the Abomination can duke it out, law-of-physics-suspended CGI style, on a fakey New York City backlot. The action moves so quickly and so jarringly in those last minutes that it’s hard to make out what the hell is going on, but it barely matters because it’s impossible to care, except in that distant movie way that you know you’re supposed to cheer for the Hulk because he’s the “good guy.”

It’s like two different movies have been spliced together. Honestly. What’s really weird about that is that this Hulk offers two other examples of fantasy action CGI-heavy setpieces that work really well: that advance story and character and theme and are just simply thrilling to watch. So it’s not even like one can make sweeping dismissals of CGI or superhero movies or whatever. You kinda want to smack director Louis Leterrier (the Transporter movies) and ask him, How could you get it so right here and so wrong there?

It’s very strange.

The first of the three battle setpieces, in fact, gave me particular thrills, as a fan of both superhero action and brilliant actors. A commando team lead by General Ross (William Hurt: Vantage Point, Into the Wild) — the military heavy who wants to turn Dr. Bruce Banner’s process for hulking out into a weapon — has discovered Banner’s hideout in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, and they’re moving in to take him. Banner catches on at the last possible moment, and so we’re off on a spectacular foot chase across the favela rooftops, and it’s all about Norton (The Painted Veil, The Illusionist) here, how he conveys Banner’s terror through little looks thrown over his shoulder or in the way he quickly seduces the locals not to betray him as he dashes through, and all the while also keeping his fear under control, as he’s been learning to do, so that he doesn’t have an “incident.” (Leterrier is confident with his camera, too, swooping through the winding closes and steep stairs of the slum in such a way that we feel the possibilities for getting lost and those for getting caught at the same time.)

And then the action moves indoors, into the soda-bottling factory where Banner has been holding down a menial job for the dough, and now he does hulk out, though Leterrier is smart enough to keep him in the shadows for a surprisingly long time as the commandos winnow down to just Ross’s imported bulldog, the British Royal Marine Emil Blonsky. As Blonksy and the Hulk cat-and-mouse — this is where I knew we had something special here — we’re left, since Leterrier is keeping the Hulk mostly hidden, with Blonsky, and with Roth (Tsunami: The Aftermath, Dark Water), who is one of those amazing actors who seems to do nothing in a way that speaks encyclopedias of information. It seems like we learn everything about Blonsky we need to know in this one sequence, with nary a line of dialogue, just from Roth’s body language, the way he moves and the expressions that flit across his face. He’s a psychopath, and he’s in love with the idea of mutating into a Hulking supersoldier, and so he keeps on cat-and-mousing with Banner throughout the whole movie — well, at least up till that final half hour — as Banner searches for a cure and Blonsky searches for his own kind of twisted, gamma-irradiated anti-redemption…

It’s that deep duality we want to see in superhero / supervillain stories — the script is by X-Men vet Zak Penn and Norton himself, in his first credit as a screenwriter, and who knew he was such a geek? — and it’s surrounded by a lot of funny, touching stuff along the way: nods to the 1970s Incredible Hulk TV series; some stuff about the perils of sex with a mutated man (Liv Tyler [The Strangers, Reign Over Me] is her usual lovely genial presence as Dr. Betty Ross, Banner’s once and future girlfriend and colleague); and more.

And then it all falls apart at the end. It’s so frustrating. You can’t not see this, because everything before it falls apart is great. But what a shame that it can’t keep its shit together to see it through.

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