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Saturday, June 21, 2008

Mas Stretchy: The Incredible Hulk

As I think I've mentioned before, we're pretty easy like a Sunday morning when it comes to superhero movies. Nonetheless, I had more than default excitement going into The Incredible Hulk: Edward Norton? Gooooood! Tim Roth? Gooooood! Louis Leterrier (ETA: ARTISTIC director of The Transporter, the director of The Transporter, of course, being Luc Besson)? Goood! Script by Zak Penn? Well, fortunately I didn't know that going in . . .

As I also think I've mentioned before, I didn't hate Ang Lee's Hulk, but this is certainly the better movie for a number of reasons. Zak Penn's numerous past sins notwithstanding, The Incredible Hulk makes some good calls about how to frame the story.

Most notably, the script assumes that if you've showed up to the Hulk Smash party, you know the Hulk Smash origin story and you'll be able to follow along without an overabundance of expository dialogue. Thus the movie, overall, zips along at a good pace. (It's also about 20 minutes shorter than Hulk.)

Not bogging things down with dialogue that's highly likely to be awkward (Zak Penn does not, shall we say, have a gift for writing interpersonal relationships) is also a good idea; however, as M pointed out, the fact that the movie isn't crammed with expository dialogue does mean that some of the "required" lines stand out even more (e.g., Sterns punching "Abomination," the Culver University student reporter punching "Hulk" [although, to their credit, they were so far from punching the fact that said student's name was Jack McGee that we both missed it]).

One of the reasons that I retain a fondness for Hulk is that Ang Lee makes really, really pretty movies. And I still think that Hulk represents the best integration of the style and feel static comic book panels into film, which, you know, moves. The Incredible Hulk doesn't really go there (M might argue that, instead, TIH draws too heavily on the television show, but such is a vulgar opinion).

The look is all Leterrier, and the movie cannily begins in the almost Escher-like Brazilian slums, which are ideal for establishing that look. The aerial shots are stunning, all the more because they're followed by the claustrophobia of Bruce trying to remain as physically apart as he is emotionally isolated. And to let Penn off the hook, there are some nice beats that establish his isolation: The fact that he doesn't magically know Portuguese, for example (and a number of authors and would-be authors would do well to note that brilliant scientist != brilliant linguist + there is nothing not funny about "You wouldn't like me when I'm hungry."); the revelation that he lives very near the woman from the factory who, it appears, would have gladly relieved that loneliness, yet Bruce doesn't capitalize on that knowledge until he needs it to get away. (And, really, there's a beautiful economy to that scene—a subtle gem of characterization buried in the heart of an extended, skillfully handled action sequence.)

Leterrier, needless to say, can bring the action. On the way home, M and I were discussing that TIH doesn't shy away from showing the damage that the Hulk does to "puny humans." (The very well done opening montage, in fact, prominently features a seriously injured Betty Ross, which allows us to shudder along with Bruce without actually having to care about Liv Tyler. Bonus!) It's not that TIH is particularly graphic, but without being graphic, it is peculiarly brutal. Just one example: When Abomination is tearing it up at the Apollo (seriously, Leterrier has some anger management issues of his own vis-à-vis the Apollo), a group of NYPD are shown advancing on him. Cut to a long shot from Hulk's perspective, and—rather incidentally—bodies can be seen flying through the air in the corner of the frame, and the hats flying off their heads pretty clearly identify them as the cops from the previous shot.

Probably there's someone out there who will argue that Edward Norton is not all that, and maybe even that Eric Bana is the better actor. That wouldn't be me. I've got nothing against Bana, but I may have arrived at the Edward Norton Love party late, but I arrived wholeheartedly. There's so much more Hulk than Banner in this movie that, immediately after leaving the theater, I felt like it was a shame that Norton didn't get to act more. But then I could immediately summon up at least a dozen moments in which he just knocked my socks off. (Again with the selling me on the notion that Bruce does not, in fact, feel lucky and well rid of Liv Tyler!)

M was having some issues with the Puny Bannerness of Norton, and certainly, let's face it: Eric Bana's face is kind of pre-Hulked for your convenience. I will admit that they were not nearly so successful in mapping Norton's emotional palette on to the Hulk here as they were in Hulk, despite the paradoxical fact that Edward Norton did the Hulk character reference here, and Eric Bana did not. They do pull it off in a couple of instances, most importantly when Abomination gets up for the final time and Hulk makes a patented "You've got to to be kidding me" face.

On the issue of punyness, rage, and believability, again M was having more problems than I did. He felt that Bana (and/or the script for Hulk) was more successful at showing Banner's innate rage-control issues, whereas he was having trouble feeling the force of Norton's Banner's pissed-offedness. I, in contrast, thought they were actually trying to build a foundation for a subtler relationship between Bruce Banner and the Hulk, first of all by showing us, right up until the very last shot of Norton in the movie, a Banner trying to control a separate entity, and largely succeeding, and second by having Bruce and Betty having a substantial disagreement about how much Banner and the Hulk bleed into one another. I don't really know much of anything about Abomination's character, but I thought that giving him command of language, completely without comment (and later giving Hulk very limited language, even this was really about getting in a wholly necessary HULK SMASH), added to the feeling that this movie is leaving the conversation open about the Banner/Hulk duality.

But what's that you say? There were actors other than Edward Norton? I didn't notice. Oh, fine. William Hurt is actually quite good as the general, but M and I both have 0 resistance vs. Sam Elliot, and we couldn't help but miss him. There's not a lot written for Tim Roth as Blonsky, his human incarnation, but I pretty much always think Roth is a good casting choice, and I think his slight build was a particularly good conceptual match for Norton's. Tim Blake Nelson was GREAT as Mr. Blue/Sterns/Leader-to-BE (and that reminds me: If I had written the script, I'd have somehow worked in a Mr. Orange joke for Roth).

Liv Tyler is not actively bad as Betty, but the role is, if possible, even more underwritten than Pepper Potts (not that you'll hear me complaining about seeing too little of Gwyneth Paltrow, as if such a thing were possible). I really wish I hadn't been spoiled for Tony Stark's appearance, but RDJ and William Hurt appeared to be having a ball with it.

Anyway, it's not the best superhero movie, even of this season (Iron Man was really good, what can I say?), but it's a solid and enjoyable entry, and certainly better than both X-Men movies written by Penn. Plus, you know, Hulk car boxing gloves!

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