Toward the end of The Incredible Hulk, two anonymous soldiers find themselves facing down a grotesquely overmuscled, ten-foot-tall, mutant monster of a man smashing his way through a city block in Harlem. After realizing that their sidearms do about as much damage as spitballs, they discover a rocket launcher in the back of their jeep. “Sweet!” the first no-name soldier exclaims. “Booyah!” says his buddy, and several minutes of obnoxious rocket-launching and car-smashing follow. The scene’s a roughly accurate distillation of the larger film: dumb, unsubtle, violent, and oafishly charming from time to time, if not exactly good.
It’s also a marked departure from its predecessor, which — if equally middling — was somewhat more ambitious. Five years ago, Ang Lee, the somber, serious, tender director behind The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain, gave us Hulk, a summer blockbuster about the green-skinned, purple-panted comic-book superhero and kitschy 70s TV icon. In keeping with Lee’s style, it was brainy, talky, reflective, slow, and anguished — pretty much all the qualities that guarantee a superhero blockbuster will fail. So it’s not terribly surprising to see that, for the green behemoth’s second big-screen outing, everything from the first film has been more or less forgotten.
The basics of the story stay the same: a lab experiment accidentally turns Dr. Bruce Banner into a verdant musclebound moron — though this time he’s belted by gamma rays in a brief flashback while the opening credits roll. Banner, now played by Edward Norton, is still in love with pretty scientist Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), who is still the daughter of the stiff, heartless General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt). But the events described in the first film seem never to have taken place: It’s a parallel-universe reboot that fits the character into comic-book publisher Marvel’s current cinematic universe — the company now handles all of its films in-house — rather than a direct sequel.
In the director’s chair, Lee has been replaced by Louis Letterier, who previously helmed the stupid-but-fun, cool-guy action sequel, Transporter 2. In that film, he showed he knew how to stage a solid action scene and show off Jason Statham’s well-exercised torso. Here, he proves more or less the same thing, although this time, the torso in question is green and computer generated.
Letterier’s got a knack for choreographing colliding bodies. He loves to have his characters creatively bash and smash each other with their surroundings (at one point, the Hulk rips a police car in half and uses the pieces as boxing gloves). The effect is often something like a Broadway musical crossed with a kung-fu flick. And he seems to fetishize the muscular male build, which here is more exaggerated than ever. As in his Transporter sequel, The Incredible Hulk is peppered with loving shots of the male physique: an early scene features a way-too-admiring close-up of Banner learning to perform a series of bizarre martial-arts excercises with his belly. It would be too much to call anything on the screen visual poetry, but from time to time, his characters — like the best professional wrestlers — achieve a sort of hammy bruiser’s theatricality.
There’s far more to enjoy in those scenes, however, than in the plodding, graceless script. The story moves through Brazil, Virginia, and Manhattan, and has Banner chasing down cures and pursuing Betty, his one true love, but mostly it’s just an excuse to pit the Hulk against the well-armed forces of General Ross. This may, in the end, be a good thing considering the stilted, perfunctory direction of any scene that doesn’t involve the film’s titular green giant beating someone up.
It doesn’t help that most of the actors trying to carry those scenes sound tired and lifeless. The fetching but vapid Liv Tyler strains credibility as a Ph D. biology professor, looking barely old enough to be a grad student. (What’s next? Jessica Alba as a genetic research scientist? Oh wait. . . .) And William Hurt comes across mostly as surly. The biggest disappointment, by far, though, is the normally reliable Tim Roth, who plays General Ross’s top attack dog, a biologically modified soldier who eventually becomes the film’s steroidal, car-crunching super villain. Roth is capable of considerable menace, but here he just waits around scowling until the computer graphics kick in. Only Norton manages to rise above the script’s parade of dull dialog and deliver anything like a compelling performance.
Of course, it’s a shared gig for Norton. He splits his screen time with a computer-animated alter ego, a grimacing green Goliath with calves the size of pylons and abs that bulge from his belly like small boulders. The effects work is impressive, but not quite convincing — this Hulk is less a solid presence than a not-quite-physical projection of the id, the fantastic manifestation of every comic-book reading teenager’s pent-up inner rage. He’s dumb rage incarnate, a terrorizing brute who acts an awful lot like a high-schooler who’s just been told to clean his room. He’s even got the perpetually sullen expression and floppy emo haircut to match.
Of course, that anger hides a more sensitive side. And indeed, amidst all the mayhem, there are a few hints of genuine sadness, mostly hidden in Norton’s understated but effective performance. Letterier, the literalist action buff, is clueless as to how to bring these notes out, but his inexpressive direction seems to match the emotionally stunted, melancholy inner life of the film’s protagonist. This hero may be green on the outside, but his soul is clearly blue.