If you’ve seen a promotional trailer for The Incredible Hulk, you already know the plot right up to the last five minutes. Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) is on the run from General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) and the entire U.S. military.
They are after a biological secret inside of Banner, who is transmogrified into a green behemoth whenever he becomes excited or enraged. Special agent Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) is Banner’s personal nemesis, and Ross’s daughter Betty (Liv Tyler) just happens to be his love interest.
Director Louis Leterrier’s secret weapon in this brazen blockbuster is his cast. Norton has proven himself capable of incredibly intense performances (especially in American History X and Fight Club), and co-stars Hurt and Tyler have decent acting pedigrees of their own.
Tim Roth, who is less consistent (along with a role in Pulp Fiction, he has appeared in such films as The Musketeer, the Planet of the Apes remake, and Dark Water), is the wildcard here. But despite some laughably flimsy characterization and implausible motivation, he really inhabits his role, transforming Blonsky — with help from the same super-soldier technology found in Banner — from a grizzled agent to an even bigger and badder hulk than Hulk himself.
Plop the two big beasties down in the middle of NYC (actually recognizable as downtown Toronto in a number of shots) for a showdown, and you have your adrenaline-charged climax.
But it is the equilibrium afforded this picture by its acting talent — a counterbalance to the impressive, effects-heavy fight scenes — which elevates it from the level of, say, The Fantastic Four, to the realm of agreeable cinema, alongside Iron Man and the first two installments of the X-Men or Spider-Man series.
Norton reportedly had a hand in the screenwriting, and while the studio is clearly trying to distance itself from Ang Lee’s “cerebral” take on the Hulk, for all its sound and fury this film is still something of an “emotional” Hulk movie.
The always-radiant Tyler is positively bewitching as Betty Ross, transcending her occasionally wooden dialogue with sheer presence, marshalling that same ethereal quality she brought to the role of Arwen in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
There are the usual in-jokes and nods to comic-book aficionados, including the requisite Stan Lee cameo, a bit-part for Lou Ferrigno (the original television Hulk, who also voices the CGI Hulk in this film), an appearance by a major Iron Man character, and a curtain-closing Marvel reference which echoes the post-credits scene from Iron Man and hints at something big coming down the pipeline.
But this Hulk is at its best when it seems to be channeling sources outside of the comic universe. A showdown between Hulk and a U.S. military cadre at Culver University recalls scenes from Jurassic Park and Lord of the Rings in its relentless pace and visual energy (not to mention the man-vs.-impervious-beast angle).
The next scene, in which the Hulk escapes with an injured Betty to some kind of mountain sanctuary, evokes the bourgeoning relationship between Ann Darrow and the great titular ape of Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong remake.
Perhaps that’s how Norton envisioned it (and why he allegedly refused to help promote the film after seeing the direction his script took in post-production): a twenty-first century Beauty and the Beast. Aside from a few fragments – most notably the King Kong moment with Betty – that vision is lost, and for all of Banner’s inner conflict and his desire to cure himself, this is a film that has much more in common with Transformers than with Nicole Kassell’s introspective, character-driven film The Woodsman.
But that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Like its title character, The Incredible Hulk is about confrontations, about battles and fights and showdowns — and, well, smashing things. And those are the ingredients of a perfectly adequate summer action movie.