Finally, Hollywood gets around to remaking something that needs to be remade. Hulk (2003) stands out on Ang Lee’s resumé like Larry the Cable Guy at a black-tie dinner. With Eric Bana as its wooden lead, CGI effects that were monstrous in all the wrong ways, and Nick Nolte rampaging more than the title character (Nolte didn’t chew the scenery in the movie’s climactic scene; he swallowed it whole), Hulk was rightly lambasted by critics. Which would have been fine with the studio, of course, except that audiences stayed away, too. We can’t have that. So, five short years later, the jolly-allergic green giant bounds into theaters again, trying to smash his way back into our hearts. The results are decidedly mixed.
Let’s start with the upgrades. The most significant is Edward Norton in the role of Dr. Bruce Banner, the mild scientist who was poisoned with gamma radiation while working on a military project, causing him to morph into the Hulk whenever he’s too angry. (In the movie, the trigger is linked to Banner’s pulse, not just anger. Sexual arousal can do the trick just as well, making him a high-risk, high-yield date.) Bana may not have the blinding charisma of a movie star, but he has the cheekbones and abs of one. Norton’s stringiness — to say nothing of his acting chops — offers a more poetic contrast to the Hulk’s dimensions.
The script and story are also improvements — up to a point. After a breezy recap of Banner’s history over the opening credits, we’re taken on a stunning aerial tour of the claustrophobically stacked houses of a Brazilian slum, where Banner is living and working at a soda bottling factory. In between shifts, he practices a mixture of martial arts and anger control with a local guru. It’s working. A graphic pops up to tell us there have been five months “without incident.”
Banner is carefully off the radar because General Ross (William Hurt) wants to find him, corral him, study him, and weaponize the gamma effect. Blonsky (Tim Roth) is the latest mercenary hired to do the formidable corralling. (His first attempt benefits greatly from the Brazilian location, an unforgettable backdrop for an extended chase scene.) With his most recent cover blown, Banner returns home to Virginia to dig up secret, possibly helpful information about his condition. While there, he sees Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), his former girlfriend and the general’s daughter. She has taken up with a psychologist but reserves a place in her heart for the chemistry experiment who got away. Both of them realize that Bruce will eventually have to skip town again.
The somber sense of necessary wandering that permeated the otherwise campy TV series (1978-1982) is beautifully established in the first half of the new movie. The TV show echoes in other ways, too — including inventive cameos by a couple of actors, a brief, stirring use of the famous piano theme, and a funny play on Banner’s classic warning: “Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” Director Louis Leterrier — whose credentials aren’t exactly Ang-like — conveys the cultural cues of the Hulk better than Lee did on almost every level.
Which is why it’s particularly sad that his effort is done in by a weak leading man and a terrible third act. CGI has improved since 2003. This Hulk looks more organic than Ang Lee’s version, but given that Lee’s looked like a giant lime-green kickball, that’s not progress enough. Portraying this creature is a problem that other super-movies don’t have. A flashy latex costume won’t do the trick. And since even a brief look back at the days of Lou Ferrigno should be enough to dissuade anyone from just painting another dude, we may be left to sadly conclude that the Hulk is just unfilmable.
The last few scenes here are certainly unwatchable. Once Banner arrives in New York to meet with a scientist who might hold a cure, the movie unravels. Focus moves from the touching story of Bruce and Betty to outlandish twists — like Banner tossing himself from a helicopter for no good reason — and a long, loud, generic finale outside the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
The shame of all this is that Bruce Banner and his worse half are great raw material. The Hulk is not Banner’s alter ego so much as his sub ego, erupting to express an inner rage that everyone is capable of feeling. This makes the Hulk a far more archetypal figure than, say, Batman. And Banner is not a newspaper hack by day, like Superman, hoping to go unnoticed by colleagues only for the sake of the plot’s credibility; he’s literally hunted by military operatives who won’t be thrown off track by a pair of eyeglasses and a cowlick. This requires him to lead a nomadic existence, forsaking not just certain relationships but any kind of stability at all. There’s a poignancy to this set-up that’s missing from any number of other super heroes. (It’s arguable whether the Hulk can even be called a hero. He’s heroically pissed off, but that’s about it.) But the best anyone has come to capturing this dynamic on screen is the closing moment of the TV series’ opening credits, when a split screen shows a thoughtful Banner and a raging Hulk. Longer exposure than that, and the green one has proven to be a visual dud. The closing moments of this most recent installment leaves the door open — wide open — for a sequel. A synergistic sequel, no less. So perhaps the third time will prove the charm. But I’m not getting my pulse up about it.
John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.
The Incredible Hulk / John Williams
Film | June 13, 2008 | Comments ()