Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk is not a sequel to Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk, but it could easily be mistaken for one. After a few minutes of expository flashback, the new movie begins pretty much where the earlier one ended, with scientist Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) hiding out in South America after having suffered a massive radioactive accident that causes him now and then to transform into a decidedly unjolly green giant and break lots of things. The primary cast, too, is the same: Banner, his brunette semi-girlfriend Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), and her gruff, antagonistic father (William Hurt, sporting the exact silver brush cut and moustache that Sam Elliott wore the last time around), who also just happens to be the general in charge of tracking the Hulk down.
But if Lee’s Hulk was an occasionally stylish but rather self-serious intergenerational melodrama, a superhero flick crossed with The Prince of Tides (right down to the inclusion of Nick Nolte), the reboot by Leterrier is an unapologetic actioner, a superhero flick crossed with The Bourne Identity with a dash of King Kong thrown in. As is often the case with such reinventions, this is both a good and a bad thing.
The good is most apparent in the first half-hour or so of the film. Banner has taken refuge in an industrial town in Brazil, where he spends his time working in a bottling plant, learning Portuguese from “Sesame Street” broadcasts, and taking lessons in self-discipline from a martial artist with an abdomen so limber it could make belly dancers weep. Though Banner has gone 158 days without an “incident,” his vigilance is still total: When he cuts a finger at the plant, he shuts down the entire system in order to track down a single drop of his blood. (Hulkism, in this telling, is like vampirism: a blood-borne “disease” that turns men into monsters.) He misses a spot, though, and soon enough the military has tracked him to Brazil and sent in a commando unit, led by the zealous Blonsky (Tim Roth). A cat-and-mouse chase eventually winds up in the bottling plant, where Banner’s anger management finally fails him and he shows Blonsky exactly how uneasy he is being green.
From there, sadly, the film gradually abandons Bourne-ish suspense in favor of a series of louder and more hectic confrontations--the Hulk against an Army brigade, the Hulk against an even more grotesque radioactive monster--intercut with a few scenes of dewy eye-gazing between Banner and Ross fille. (Anything more carnal is off the table, given the not-at-all-romantic consequences should he get too “excited.”) A large part of the problem is the Hulk himself, shrewdly shown in shadowy slow-reveal early on, but thrust increasingly center-frame as the film progresses: There’s just no getting past the fact that he’s a big digitized cartoon, and while this version is an improvement on the earlier film’s, it’s an incremental one.
The Incredible Hulk is the second release of Marvel Studios (Iron Man was the first), so it does have its share of sharp, knowing moments: for instance, when Banner warns a bully in his broken Portuguese “Don’t make me hungry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m hungry”; or when, in deference to his waistline’s tendency to expand rapidly, he asks a Guatemalan pants seller, “Tienes mas stretchy?” But unlike Iron Man, nothing in the film feels inspired: The Zak Penn script is good but not great, the direction by Leterrier (best known for his Transporter movies) is merely adequate, and, with the exception of Roth’s Blonsky and an overeager scientist played by Tim Blake Nelson, none of the performances are particularly vivid.
Given his talent, Norton is a particular disappointment, though it’s not truly his fault: His man-on-the-run Banner is compelling enough in the early-going, but as his alter-ego assumes greater and greater prominence, there’s just not much for him to do. A scene late in the film made me wonder, in fact, whether Norton may be collaborating, intentionally or not, in his own obsolescence. Earlier, Banner had said of his super-powered curse, “I don’t want to control it. I want to get rid of it.” By the end, though, he has changed his mind and begun practicing to manage his Hulkiness. But once he succeeds, who’s going to need skinny Bruce Banner at all anymore? I ask in particular because Marvel has a big superhero-group film, The Avengers, tentatively scheduled for 2011, and given the expenses it will entail (an Iron Man, a Captain America, a Thor, and on and on), they probably wouldn’t mind shaving off Norton’s salary.
In any case, at the screening I attended, the loudest cheers of the night by far were for an end-of-the-film cameo by Robert Downey, Jr., as Tony Stark that closely parallels the post-credit Nick Fury scene in Iron Man. (Again, the purpose is twofold: To begin knitting Marvel’s comic universe together, and to build buzz for The Avengers.) It was an odd moment, at once elating and deflating. For fans of the superhero genre--and of special-effect action movies in general--The Incredible Hulk is a perfectly solid addition to the canon. But its primary aftertaste is eager anticipation for Iron Man 2.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.