Thursday, June 19, 2008

New 'Hulk' a smashing good time

The newly minted Marvel Studio is on a roll. After years of selling the rights to their titles to other production companies, Marvel comics made the bold move to produce its own films, and thus far the company is no joke. Following on the heels of their wildly entertaining “Iron Man,” Marvel delivers another surprisingly good film in “The Incredible Hulk.”

You may recall that it was just five years ago that audiences were already given the story of the mild mannered scientist Bruce Banner who after a freak accident is bestowed with the curse (or is it a gift?) of turning into a giant green behemoth whenever he gets angry.

That was Ang Lee’s “Hulk,” which received a lukewarm reception from critics and was largely reviled by fans of the comic book. Instead of doing a direct sequel, Marvel Studio decided to do a complete re-do, similar to the way “Batman Begins” and the forthcoming “Dark Knight” are a new series of “Batman” films.

Lee’s “Hulk” was sort of fascinating in the way it used the Hulk as a metaphor for suppressed childhood memories. The struggle between Banner and his alter ego can make for great, thoughtful drama, but Lee’s “Hulk” swung too far to the cerebral and forgot that one of the simple pleasures of the character was watching him smash things.

This new “Hulk” is directed by Louis Leterrier, who helmed the underrated “Unleashed.”
That film featured Jet Li as a man trained to act as an attack dog. Leterrier not only ratcheted up the brutal martial scenes in that film, but also featured tender moments and coaxed the best English-language performance out of Li. Leterrier brings that same well-calibrated balance between quiet drama and loud bash around action to his “Hulk.”

Leterrier, working from a script by Zak Penn with an un-credited re-write by star Edward Norton, gets the back story out of the way in the title sequence. He drops the audience in Rio de Janeiro, where Banner (Norton) is hiding out working at a bottling plant and searching for a cure.

His nemesis, General Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt, “Vantage Point”) is desperately pursuing him to try to exploit his power for military applications. Ross employs the help of a mercenary named Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth, “Reservoir Dogs,” “Rob Roy”) to capture him. Blonsky is in awe of the Hulk’s power, and through a super-solider serum he begins to be able to match him in battle.

The script sets up a brilliant device of having Banner’s heart rate be the Hulk trigger. The key number is 200. Knowing this bit of information adds an extra layer of suspense to a foot chase through the streets and roof tops of Rio. The faster Banner runs, the quicker his heart beats.

This first chase is well paced and recalls the best scenes in the “Bourne” franchise. As with “Iron Man” the first half hour is presented with a certain degree of realism that helps keep the film grounded when it shifts fully into comic book mode.

The film basically plays like a chase movie from the moment Banner’s Rio location is compromised. Banner is forced to stop being a loner and get help. Aid comes in the form of his former girlfriend Betty Ross (Liv Tyler, “The Strangers”) and a slightly mad scientist wonderfully played by Tim Blake Nelson (“O Brother Where Art Thou”).

The film is elevated by having excellent actors who are giving the same caliber performance they would if they were in a more “serious” film. Norton, who has brilliantly played conflicted characters in such films as “Fight Club” and “American History X,” is ideally cast as Banner. Norton has a way of carrying the burden of the Hulk that is nuanced and believable.
Roth has been a go-to man for villainy for years, and he fleshes out Blonsky into an interesting character. He is not necessarily a bad guy, just one who desires power — and that hunger leads him to transform into a monster. He becomes a dynamic counter balance to Norton’s Banner. One man struggles to gain power, while the other tries to lose it.

Tyler and Norton have a low-key romantic chemistry and share some funny banter. A sex scene getting cut short out of fear of an appearance by the Hulk is particularly amusing. Tyler also admirably develops a believable relationship with the computer-generated Hulk. There is a nice beauty and the beast feel to the scenes they share. A scene in a cave even favorably evokes the same sort of warmth that appeared in Peter Jackson’s “King Kong.”

This Hulk is no softy though. In battle he is a rough-and-tumble rumbler who will rip a car in half and use it as a pair of boxing gloves. The final confrontation between Hulk and a souped-up Blonsky is an action packed clash that is exactly what fan boys are hoping for.

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