The entertainment industry thrives on second chances. Take Robert Downey Jr.
, for example. A one-time drug abuser and convicted felon, the admittedly gifted performer cleaned up his act and now flies high in Paramount's massive hit, Iron Man.
Forgiveness isn't an exclusive gift. Multiple fictional heroes, from Batman to the Punisher, have enjoyed a creative rebirth after their introductions failed or their stars faded.
The latest repentant personality to receive an image makeover is Iron Man's comic book colleague the Hulk. The moodiest superhero in the expansive Marvel universe last graced the big screen in 2003, when Oscar-nominated director Ang Lee chose to quasi-sensically explore the emotional resonance and moral quandaries of Dr. Bruce Banner's emerald burden. Too bad for Lee the true fans wanted less human conflict and much more "Hulk smash!" Article continues below
And so we're treated to a reboot. Universal Pictures and the new Marvel Studios decided to forgo a traditional sequel and just start over from scratch with a Hulk picture that delivers the action fans expected. They hired Louis Leterrier
, director of two Transporter pictures and a Jet Li flick, and nabbed serious thespian Edward Norton
for the conflicted role of Banner, Hulk's human counterpart.
With Lee's dud adequately cleansed away, the new point of reference for this re-imagined Incredible Hulk is the campy television series that ran for five seasons beginning in 1978. Leterrier and his screenwriter, Zak Penn, include almost as many references to the program as they do to Hulk's source comic books. They range from obvious (Lou Ferrigno plays a campus security guard), to subtle (a young newspaper reporter goes by the name of Jack McGhee, which was the name of the reporter Jack Colvin played in the television show), to blink-and-you-missed-it quick (Norton at one point watches the old program The Courtship of Eddie's Father, which starred Bill Bixby, the original Bruce Banner).
Penn's plot even sounds like something we would have hunkered in front of our sets to watch in the late '70s. Banner lives in self-imposed exile as he searches for a cure to the gamma poisoning that triggers his savage transformations. He pines for his lost love, Betty Ross (Liv Tyler
), and attempts to stay one step ahead of Betty's father, Gen. Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross (William Hurt
), and the military's top soldier, Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth
Leterrier's Hulk isn't an origin story. It assumes we're already familiar with Banner's tragic plight, and taps right into the sorrowful cloud of helplessness that hangs over this hero's head. Norton does a fine job personifying Banner's suffering, and carries an ill-equipped Tyler through their melancholic scenes. I wish he had actual interactions with Roth, but Blonsky mainly stares down Leterrier's digital Hulk in the film's assorted battle scenes.
And how is that computer-generated Hulk? Sadly, the CGI effects that were ridiculed in Lee's version still don't work here. The Hulk looks like a dark, shiny, muscular pickle. Certain body parts looks amazing when close up -- a massive foot stomping through a factory or a hand busting through the New York pavement. But Ferrigno's presence only reminds us that a steroid-enhanced actor playing the Hulk was more believable then, and probably would be now. Also, Hulk's anti-climactic battle with Blonsky's souped-up Abomination monster is adequate by video-game standards but disappointing in a summer blockbuster.
Steeped in nostalgia for the television show and the comics, this Hulk sidesteps back story but also neglects to further the narrative. Save for Roth's super soldier, the characters experience minimal growth from start to finish. In fact, it was only when the aforementioned Downey cameos as Tony Stark in the closing minutes that I realized this film's true function. Hulk is a placeholder, a refresher course on the character's bare essentials so he can be part of Marvel's already announced Avengers movie tentatively scheduled for 2011. If you don't mind paying for a lengthy prologue, smash away.