'Incredible Hulk' is a successful re-boot; M. Knight is still struggling
We can all agree that Ang Lee's 2003 version of The Hulk was a bad mix of art house pretentiousness and less-than-compelling action sequences.
Still, most times when a designed tent-pole franchise crashes and burns (Howard the Duck, Catwoman), it doesn't rise from the ashes a few years later.
The Incredible Hulk has risen from the dead, and while it isn't in the superhero stratosphere occupied by Batman Begins and X-Men, it is a reasonably entertaining summer movie.
On paper, the combination of serious actor Edward Norton and Transporter 2 director Louis Leterrier wasn't all that promising. We knew Norton could bring Christian Bale-like angst to the part, but would he feel comfortable connecting to the fun side of the comic book world?
The good news is that Norton has nailed it. One of the more enjoyable aspects of the re-boot is that Norton's Bruce Banner seems so physically frail -- he is, after all, a geek scientist -- that when he finally lets his inner beast out, the contrast is striking.
The story begins in Brazil where Banner is in hiding, an anonymous gringo working in a soda factory, and living among the people. He wants to find a cure for his gamma ray poisoning, and is in correspondence with someone who thinks he can get the Hulk out of Bruce permanently.
Meanwhile, General Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt) wants Banner back so he can recreate Hulkamania and field an army of unstoppable Hulk clones. The humanity Sam Elliott brought to the role has been erased for this interpretation, with William Hurt having fun as the steel-eyed warmonger. Ross' top henchman is career soldier Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), who is up for a little genetic enhancement.
Ross' daughter Betty (Liv Tyler) has tried to put Bruce in her past, but when he resurfaces, she will be at his side, aligned against her madman dad.
In a clever bit of plot development created by screenwriter Zak Penn (X-Men: Last Stand, Fantastic Four), a wee bit of Banner's blood sets up a chain of events that allows General Ross to track him. That's when the action heats up and it stays hot until a fabulous clash of the titans between the Incredible Hulk and the gamma enhanced Emil. Their battle in the streets of New York is a doozy. The career soldier embraces his inner monster with gusto, but Banner has the advantage of experience in the titanic tilt.
In the early sequences, prior to the big-ticket action that drives the second half of the movie, Norton's acting talent is the focus. He keeps the action fan boys engaged despite their desire to see the payoff.
You do have to be patient. For a while it felt like the new movie might be a slightly better, but still a less-than-satisfying return of the Hulk. However, when Bruce Banner lets down his guard and lets loose with his green side, the payoff is worth the wait.
Part of the appeal of the new film is the offbeat cast. Roth and Tim Blake Nelson (as the goofy scientist who thinks he has found the gamma poison cure) are veterans of independent cinema, not your typical superhero co-stars. Both are terrific. Tyler doesn't have enough to do, but does what she can in a limited role, and Hurt relishes his bad guy role without chewing the scenery.
Norton brings just what you would expect, the skills of an Academy Award-nominated actor, and in combination with the solid action provided by Leterrier, The Incredible Hulk has successfully risen from the dead.
Unfortunately, the career of M. Night Shyamalan remains in decline. The man who burst into the movie world with The Sixth Sense, followed by Unbreakable and Signs, has still not recovered his movie mojo. The Happening is an improvement over Lady in the Water, but is still short of a successful thriller. The M. Knight brilliance is there in quick jolts of suspense and terror, but those moments are the exception in this otherwise flat little thriller. The notion that something other than a manmade threat or alien intervention could be just as devastating to human kind is an intriguing notion, one that Alfred Hitchcock embraced with The Birds. Shyamalan makes his nod to that movie, but comes up short in reinventing the genre for new generation.
There is no movie review this week because, frankly, the choices went from re-releases (Titanic 3D) to unappetizing sequels (American Reunion) to recycled ideas (Mirror Mirror). Go ahead and tell me it is my job to go see crap movies so I can tell my readers they are crap movies. Point taken.