Green, lean and mean, "The Incredible Hulk" is a thrill-oriented reboot of the superhero franchise that should have action fans cheering. Setting aside the ponderous Freudian themes of Ang Lee's 2003 "Hulk," this installment substitutes momentum for depth and bombastic battle scenes for character development. It lacks the graceful balance of those elements that made "Iron Man" the gold standard for superhero films, but it's a blast for demolition fans.
The story begins as the hunt for the Hulk heats up. Bruce Banner is on the run in Brazil, attempting to cure his condition with exotic medicinal plants before he's captured by Gen. Thunderbolt Ross, who wants to use his blood chemistry to create an army of super-soldiers. Director Louis Leterrier (of the high-velocity "Transporter" films) and cinematographer Peter Menzies make superb use of the mountainside shantytown where Banner has gone to ground.
The twisting maze of breakneck steps, narrow alleys and small rooftops becomes the scene of a breakneck, "Bourne"-worthy pursuit between the fugitive scientist and his would-be captors.
The film takes the form of a chase movie as Banner moves north, toward his lost love, Prof. Betty Ross, and a mysterious scientist called Mr. Blue, who has been asking for samples of Banner's gamma-irradiated blood in the search for an antidote. The route he travels allows for eye-catching Hulk battle sequences on a Virginia college campus and across New York City (why is the big climax never in Dubuque?).
The film, the second produced with creative control from Marvel Studios, continues the "Iron Man" practice of casting interesting character actors, not movie stars, as the principals. Edward Norton, one of the few American actors of his generation who can stare into a microscope without inspiring laughter, steps easily into the role of Dr. Bruce Banner. In his human form, he's given to nervous, rabbity glances, hoping to locate and outrun danger before he has to fight it. As his longtime antagonist Gen. Ross, William Hurt is a portrait in conflicted power, a man used to issuing orders, yet who can't control his rebellious daughter Betty or use the military might at his command effectively against the Hulk.
Tim Roth, the sultan of sneers, plays Emil Blonsky, a formidable commando on Banner's trail. Blonsky transforms into the Abomination, a bigger, stronger, scarier Hulk, for the final confrontation, a battle of the titans that pulverizes half of Manhattan Island. Roth's motion-captured performance in monster form gives a sense that the Abomination is truly Blonsky in a radically altered state. The only weak link among the cast is Liv Tyler as Betty, who speaks virtually every line in a librarian's whisper.
The all-important question, though, is how does the Hulk look? Far better than the green Gumby of the Ang Lee film. Leterrier generally keeps his superhero in shadow, or long shot, or in fast movement, so his mammoth muscles and granite skin texture don't look glaringly artificial.
Norton, who cowrote the film, peppered the script with insider references designed to delight hardcore comics fans while holding together a coherent, engrossing story that even those who live outside the Marvel Universe can enjoy. This "Hulk" may not be a certified smash, but it makes a big impact.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186