It’s hard to discuss director Louis Leterrier’s comic book adaptation The Incredible Hulk without mentioning the character’s two previous live action iterations- the 1978 to 1982 television series which starred Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno and Ang Lee’s 2003 film titled simply Hulk.
The television version, spearheaded by writer/producer Kenneth Johnson, was one of the first live action productions to treat the material as more than just campy juvenilia. The idea of a man living a life in hiding while trying to find a cure for his unique condition was played for its emotional reality. It is a theme that Leterrier visits in his film, and he acknowledges the inspiration of the television series with several subtle nods, one of which is played for a well-earned laugh.
But it is Lee’s previous attempt to bring the misunderstood hero to the screen that may be this film’s biggest obstacle to overcome. While he did include some of the prerequisite action sequences, like a spectacular showdown with the Army in the desert, Lee’s film was more interested in the fractured psychology of Bruce Banner (played in that film by Eric Bana) and how it resulted in the creation of the Hulk. Unfortunately, that exploration led to a muddled and disappointing third act which alienated many critics and much of its audience, raising the question if anyone would return to the theaters for a new film featuring the character.
If the audience does return for Leterrier’s new take on the character, they will find a film that is long on action and perhaps a bit less cerebral than Lee’s, though things never get dumbed down to the point of insulting the audience.
It has been five years since the accident that cursed Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) with a condition that causes him in times of great stress to grow into the muscled, brutish misunderstood monster known as the Hulk. Hiding out from the military, who want to study Banner’s condition for its potential battlefield applications, he has been practicing meditation techniques in order to keep himself from loosing control and changing. A seemingly innocuous accident ultimately leads to the military locating his hiding spot in Brazil, setting Banner on the run back north to America. There he hopes to find help from his biochemist ex-girlfriend Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) and another researcher with whom he has been communicating via encrypted email. However, the military is in hot pursuit, lead by Betty’s father, Gen. Ross (William Hurt) and ex-commando Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), who will go to any lengths to capture Banner.
For the most part, The Incredible Hulk is a better movie, if you are looking for more action and a faster overall pace. The first fight the Hulk has with the military stylistically owes much to a similar sequence in James Cameron’s Aliens (1986). A second confrontation on a college campus recalls numerous Japanese giant monster movies in which wave after wave of military hardware is brought forward to futilely try to halt the advancing creature. The film’s climactic slugfest between the Hulk and his opposite number is everything that the finale of Lee’s 2003 film should have been.
However, where the film excels in action, it just misses the mark in characterization. Leterrier does give us enough to set up Bruce Banner’s feelings of guilt over accidentally hurting the love of his life Betty in the accident. Ross’s drive to capture Banner is seen to be driven by fear of what he has become but hidden by a “Peace through superior firepower” bravado. But these things are painted in broad strokes and could probably have used a bit more development. Perhaps fittingly, the plot and characterization is merely the 98 pound weakling that transforms into a raging monster for action sequences.