Nobody much cared for Ang Lee's take on the Hulk five years ago — too thoughtful. So Marvel Comics — now making movies on its own without the annoyance of studio partners siphoning off profits — is taking another shot. This time, the accent is on damage, as it should be. Psychological complexities and other distractions are being held for "Ghost Rider 2," which I'm afraid actually is in the pipeline. But let's not torment ourselves.
Anyone even glancingly familiar with the last 46 years of Hulk lore will need no prep to grasp "The Incredible Hulk." Research scientist Dr. Bruce Banner (Edward Norton, this time out) is still plagued by the effects of a gamma-ray overdose that turns him into a rampaging mass of angry green muscles whenever he gets upset — even when he thinks a little too heatedly about his girlfriend, Betty Ross (Liv Tyler). As the movie opens, Banner is hiding out in Brazil, studying martial arts in an effort to keep his pesky temper under control and trading encrypted e-mails in his off hours with a scientist back in the States named Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson), who's working on a Hulk antidote. Banner is on the down-low because a megalomaniacal U.S. Army general called "Thunderbolt" Ross (William Hurt) is hot on his trail. Ross — who is also Betty's father, talk about a bummer — wants to use whatever it is that ails Banner to create a legion of "super-soldiers" for purposes that may not be altogether well-intentioned. Spearheading Ross' search for the young physicist is a mildly psycho subordinate named Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth).
I know it's unwise to nitpick superhero movies, in which plausibility is a suspect concept, but I had a problem with Blonsky. First of all, he was born in Russia and raised in England — and yet he's now a captain in the U.S. Army. How does that work? He also has longish hair and Hollywood-issue face stubble, and he slouches around as if there were 20 pounds of rocks sewn into the seams of his disheveled uniform. If the writers (Zak Penn and Norton himself) were determined to make this character such a schlub, they might have used his messiness to explain why Blonsky is still only a captain at the advanced age of 38. But no: Blonsky claims that the reason he hasn't been promoted is that he doesn't want to be — he's a fighter, not a desk jockey. This is pathetic. If Blonsky were so intent on being a warrior, why didn't he just set his sights on becoming a sergeant or something — it's the grunts who do most of the fighting.
While we're on the subject of implausibility, I must also admit that I find the computer-generated Hulk to be insufficiently cool. Obviously it's difficult to weave a humongous green guy into live action in any completely convincing way (Gollum is the platinum standard here), but this big-screen iteration of the Hulk is pure video game. Speaking of which, so is a lot of the mayhem — especially an endless street-level smackdown between the Hulk and Blonsky's similarly savage alter ego, the Abomination. Cars go hurtling through the air, rockets are fired, snarling behemoths swat them away. Didn't "Cloverfield" already do this with about one-fifth of the budget?
Even Norton is slightly problematic here. He's such a meticulously fine actor that he seems overqualified for a simple monster romp. He brings fresh gestures and delicate shades of feeling to his character; but especially in the first third of the movie (which is a little slow), these emotional explorations take up room that might more enjoyably be filled with damage.
In any case, the man who really owns the movie turns out to be Robert Downey Jr. He's only in it for a minute, and he's not even credited; but when he strolls up to General Ross in a barroom at the end of the picture, totally rocking his Tony Stark character from "Iron Man," and announces that he's "putting a team together" — well, you feel better just knowing that this okay-but-not-great movie is only a way station en route to that most tantalizing of Marvel destinations, "The Avengers." Three years and counting.
Check out Kurt Loder's review of "The Happening," also new in theaters this week.
Check out everything we've got on "The Incredible Hulk."
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