Monday, May 4, 2009

The Incredible Hulk (Marvel/Universal, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright @ 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Incredible Hulk, the so-called “reboot” of the Marvel Comics franchise in 2008 after the commercial and critical failure of Ang Lee’s Hulk movie in 2003. This time they went for safety, picking a little-known director with an action-adventure background (someone named Louis Leterrier, who got this film as a consolation prize after Jon Favreau beat him for the assignment to do Iron Man), hiring Zak Penn to do the script (he’s the only writer to get credit, though their star extensively rewrote the script — more on that later) and hired Edward Norton to play Dr. Bruce Banner, the rather nerdy scientist who becomes the Incredible Hulk. (Norton, infamous for insisting on rewriting most of the movies he stars in, apparently wrote the basic treatment for this film and also rewrote much of Zak Penn’s dialogue, but the Screen Writers’ Guild refused Norton screen credit.)

I remember this story first from the comic books and the 1960’s cartoons from Grantray Lawrence Animation, and was particularly struck by the idea of a superhero who was not only a rampaging engine of destruction but couldn’t control his identity — he changed when he was sufficiently stressed out to do so, whether he wanted to or not. In this version, Banner becomes the Hulk not the way he did in the comics — through an accidental exposure to gamma radiation when he attempts to rescue young orphan Rick Jones from a nuclear test site and ends up saving the boy but ending up near Ground Zero himself — but as part of a deliberate experiment in which he exposed himself to the rays on purpose, albeit under contract from the U.S. military for an experiment with a profoundly different agenda than the one he was told about.

The fact that Dr. Banner deliberately irradiated himself brings this story even closer to its obvious antecedent, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, than it was in the comic book — though oddly the movie this one seems to have been most influenced by is The Fugitive. It’s full of sequences of Dr. Banner hiding in the most out-of-the-way locations — it begins in a favela in Brazil where he’s employed as a day laborer in a bottling plant making a local soft drink called Guaranà, and it ends in a tiny village called Bella Coona, which is supposed to be in British Columbia. (The whole film, except for some second-unit work in Brazil, was shot in Canada even though much of it, including the action climax, takes place in New York City and the marquee of the Apollo Theatre features prominently in the ending.)

The reason he’s forced to do this is because the man who was in charge of the experiments that “Hulkified” Banner, General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt), is sending military forces all over the world with the mission to kill Banner because alive he’s standing in the way of their ultimate goal — to create a race of unstoppable soldiers à la George Zucco’s character in the old 1942 PRC “B” The Mad Monster (though the program would seem to raise the objection one of Zucco’s former colleagues actually made in The Mad Monster: how would you get these invulnerable military monsters to stop once you wanted them to?), and the film is essentially a movie-long chase sequence in which Ross’s forces are continually getting Banner trapped only to be unable to capture or kill him once he becomes the Hulk, while Banner himself is attempting to reach the two people he thinks can help him: Dr. Elizabeth “Betty” Ross (Liv Tyler), a cellular biologist and also his girlfriend and General Ross’s daughter; and the mysterious “Mr. Blue” with whom he’s in encrypted e-mail contact, who turns out to be neurologist Samuel Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson) who may or may not have the ability and scientific knowledge to “de-Hulkify” Banner permanently.

Of course he doesn’t get the chance; Banner goes through the Sterns treatment but then has to Hulk himself again to fight “The Abomination,” a monster also created through the gamma-ray process who had formerly been Ross’s field commander, British officer Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth, who acquits himself quite well even though he wasn’t exactly born to the mantle of an action role). Through much of the movie director Leterrier keeps the Hulk-in-action scenes dark, shadowy and ambiguous, though when we finally do see the Hulk in full-lit action we realize that it wasn’t that Leterrier was going for a Val Lewton effect but because the Hulk is one of the most transparently phony-looking digital image creations in the last 20 years or so of cinema history.

The film includes some back-handed tributes to the 1970’s Incredible Hulk TV series — including two bits of music originally composed for the series and the appearance of both its stars, Lou Ferrigno (who played the Hulk on TV and here appears as a security guard who waves Dr. Banner — incognito — in to deliver a pizza to Betty Ross; Ferrigno also delivers the Hulk’s grunts, groans and six simple words) and Bill Bixby (who’s dead and therefore wasn’t available for a “live” cameo, but was included anyway via a clip of another TV series in which he starred, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, which Banner is supposedly watching on over-the-air TV in his Brazilian slum apartment) — that only make me wonder if the solution to the story’s inherent casting problem used on the TV show (two separate actors, one as Banner and one, a real-life muscleman, as the Hulk) might actually have been better than the one used here, in which Edward Norton himself had to don the green “motion capture” suit and literally go through the Hulk’s motions before the Hulk’s digital image was electronically grafted onto Norton’s body. (Tim Roth also had to do motion-capture for the scenes in which he, as the Abomination, is fighting the Hulk.)

The Incredible Hulk is a good, solidly-made action piece, its comic-book origins well in evidence, and if it isn’t quite as light and rambunctious as Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer it isn’t as laden down with pretensions as Spider-Man 3 and The Dark Knight, either — and in the scenes in which he’s playing Banner on the run (many of them drenched in rain, in yet another nod to The Fugitive — in their parody of The Fugitive, MAD magazine actually had a man wearing a white janitor’s coat, emblazoned with the words “Making Streets Look Like It Just Rained Co.,” in the final panel) Edward Norton actually got to do far more real acting than most people who get roped into a comic-book movie are obliged to do.