Monday, June 09, 2008

It Isn't Easy Being Green

Down through the early morning heat into the centre of London to see a preview of The Incredible Hulk. More of a correction to rather than a sequel of Ang Lee’s outing with the angry green giant, the second of Marvel Studio’s productions isn’t actively bad, but it’s a disappointing follow-up to the flawed but feisty Iron Man. Still, it starts out well. The creation myth that occupied much of Ang Lee’s movie is recapitulated under the opening credits, efficiently showing how a laboratory accident cursed nuclear physicist Bruce Banner with a monstrous alter ego, the Hulk. The story opens with Banner in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, hiding out from General Thaddeus ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross, who considers him property of the US Army, attempting to learn how to control the anger and stress levels that cause him to transform into the Hulk if they rise to high, and making a connection with the mysterious Mr Blue, who promises a cure. After evading an attempt to snatch him, Banner ends up back in America, on the run with former sweetheart Dr Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), heading to New York and a rendezvous with Mr Blue, who turns out to be cell biologist Professor Samuel Sterns (Tim Blake). Meanwhile, an experienced soldier (Tim Roth) detailed to capture Bruce Banner is first treated with Super Soldier serum, and when that doesn’t satisfy his thirst for power forces Professor Sterns to give him the full Hulk treatment . . .

Like its protagonist, the movie is divided into two, and the preliminary hide-and-seek between the US Army and Bruce Banner in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro is a lot more exciting and engaging than the blockbuster CGI fest of the second half. A bigger problem is that the human characters aren’t much more appealing than the CGI creatures. Throughout, Edward Norton plays Bruce Banner much as he played ‘John Smith’ at the beginning of Fight Club: mousily quiet and severely repressed. It’s a good take on Banner’s predicament and works well in the opening sequence, but doesn’t develop into anything interesting and lacks Fight Club’s knowing irony. Partly, this is because the nature of the beast means that the lead actor always disappears when the action starts, but in between CGI rampages Banner remains an enigma, and although he’s a scientist, he shows little interest in what it means or feels like to become the Hulk; although Betsy Ross’s new flame is psychiatrist Leonard (who in the comic books was briefly Banner’s psychiatrist, before a dose of Hulk serum transformed him into Doc Samson), the movie misses the chance of a meaningful conversation between him and Banner.

Some nice moments hint at the bones of a better film underlying the blockbuster flab: Banner and Betsy Ross start to make love but can’t follow through because Banner’s arousal might trigger the Hulk; a brief, punchy scene ends with Betsy Ross letting rip at a crazy New York taxi driver, something Banner can’t allow himself to do; a Beauty and the Beast idyll between Betsy Ross and the Hulk references both Frankenstein and King Kong. But these are few and far between, and although there are enough nods to the myth to satisfy fans, and director Louis Leterrier (who scored a hit with The Transporter) gives the action scenes a gritty and visceral feel, especially in a chase through the alleys and rooftops of the favelas, the plot, like one of the episodes of the '70s TV series, doesn’t really have anywhere to go. Instead, a couple of moments that have nothing to do with the movie’s story, including a brief walk-on by another Marvel character, aim us towards the next in the series. Let’s hope it’s a lot meatier than this.


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