Fox // 1990 // 100 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Erick Harper (Retired) // June 20th, 2003
For 12 years, he's been running. Tonight, it's over. Tonight, David Banner will find freedom...or death.
The Incredible Hulk was quite popular in its initial run on television from 1978 to 1982. Friday nights just weren't complete without the back-to-back entertainment of The Dukes of Hazzard followed by the big green guy. Is there anyone who lived through that era (or since) who can't repeat on cue the catchphrase, "Don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry"?
Eight years after the end of the original series, and after a number of made-for-TV reunion movies, David Banner (Bill Bixby) remains a fugitive. By day, he poses as David Bellamy, a shy, simple-minded janitor at a high security research facility. By night, he sneaks into the genetics lab, trying to find a way to reverse his ill-fated experiments and rid himself of his secret identity.
When Dr. Ronald Pratt (Philip Sterling), the lab's usual occupant, discovers Bellamy/Banner's secret after-hours research, he takes a liking to David. The two of them work together to banish the Hulk once and for all.
This being the tail end of the Cold War, the Russians have caught wind of Pratt's experiments and want to use genetic modification to create an army of perfect soldiers. (There may be a flaw in this plan, as I doubt the Reds could have gotten a platoon of Hulks to march in unison or work cooperatively, but that's another story for another time.) The beautiful, deadly Jasmin (former Miss America and Bill Clinton paramour Elizabeth Gracen), under the control of the menacing Kasha (Andreas Katsulas, Babylon 5, numerous Star Trek series appearances), must infiltrate the lab and steal its secrets.
Of course, the Russians weren't counting on the Hulk (two-time Mr. Universe Lou Ferrigno). It falls to Banner, his green alter-ego, and a turncoat Jasmin to rescue Dr. Pratt and his wife and keep the highly sensitive research out of the wrong hands.
By and large, the superheroes from the Marvel Comics stables are much more interesting as people than the other well-known superhero brand names. Marvel heroes usually incorporate a deep ambivalence about their abilities, and are imperfect, conflicted people in their "normal" lives. Clark Kent is a squeaky-clean guy, and being Superman never looks like anything but great fun; on the other hand, being the young outcast science geek Peter Parker, or one of the tortured, alienated X-Men, carries plenty of disadvantages. David Bruce Banner is one of these complex Marvel-style heroes. A brilliant scientist forced to live on the run because he tampered with his own nature, he evokes tragic mythical figures such as Prometheus or Icarus. He takes no pleasure at all in his super-self, seeing it as a curse rather than any sort of blessing. As this adventure demonstrates, much of his time and energy is spent trying to find ways to divest himself of his superpowers.
The key to making The Incredible Hulk work on the small screen was always the very sympathetic portrayal of Banner by Bill Bixby. Even when the writing wasn't up to par (as it isn't here), Bixby managed to bring humanity to the role. In The Death of the Incredible Hulk, he performs a feat worthy of the Hulk himself, almost managing to lift his scenes above the weak script. So effective is Bixby that when Banner brings Dr. Pratt out of a coma just by talking to him, we almost buy it. Bixby also directed, which may explain why his character works so well in the movie. His direction is competent, about what one would expect to see on television in the early '90s.
Bixby's co-stars give much less satisfying performances. Elizabeth Gracen was apparently hired for her looks, not her acting abilities. She can't even maintain her pseudo-Russian accent longer than about five minutes into the production. A poor script with bad dialogue and a cheesy, contrived family crisis doesn't help her much. She does have a few good moments; not coincidentally, these are all in quiet, intimate scenes with Bixby, who not only gives life to his own character but managed to pull Gracen's work up to a respectable level.
Bixby also works well with Philip Sterling as Dr. Pratt. The two establish a sort of father-son relationship that comes together ridiculously quickly, but is surprisingly effective on the strength of solid duet work by the two men.
Oh, and while we're on the subject of co-stars: spare me your CGI monstrosities -- Lou Ferrigno is the Hulk. He doesn't have much to do other than flex and snarl and bend the occasional faux-steel pipe, but he certainly does it well.
As you may have gathered, The Death of the Incredible Hulk isn't very good. There are some clever ideas and attempts to build intrigue, but the execution is lacking. Of course, the whole Russian spy subplot made little sense by 1990, and even less sense as written here. The spies seem to enjoy using torture as a means to control their agents. The agents, strangely enough, also moonlight as car salesmen when they aren't out trying to kidnap and kill geneticists.
Probably the biggest flaw in this movie is the limited screen time for the big green guy himself. I seem to remember him being a bigger presence in the original TV series. I also remember the transformation sequences in that series being a lot more extensive and impressive than anything that we see here. As I haven't seen that show in over 20 years, my memory might be failing me, but it seems that a lot of the elements that made the TV show such fun are missing from this movie.
This being a quick attempt by Fox to cash in on the upcoming Hulk CGI-fest, there was evidently no time to prepare any special features. Included are trailers for Daredevil, Planet of the Apes (the Tim Burton version, not the good one), X-Men, and X-Men 2.
Apparently, the rush to get this disc into stores was great enough that Fox didn't have much time to spend on the transfer, either. Colors are surprisingly good and faithfully rendered, but it all goes downhill from there. There is shimmering and moiré noise all over the place. There is blocking and pixelation around light sources, something I haven't seen since some of Fox Lorber's discs from two to three years ago. The entire frame is filled with grain and artifacting that give the impression of constant rain. The picture overall is soft and gauzy, and fine details and textures are nonexistent. This is, hands down, the worst transfer I've seen from a major studio in quite some time. Maybe ever.
The audio, on the other hand, is incongruously good. It's a mono track, so don't expect too much, but it is much fuller and more pleasing than it has any right to be.
A moment of reflection is in order to remember Bill Bixby, the heart and soul of The Incredible Hulk and this movie. Although there was talk of yet another Hulk reunion movie, Bixby passed away of prostate cancer in 1993 before such plans could come to fruition. Lou Ferrigno has a cameo appearance in the new Hulk flick; it would be nice if the makers of that movie could find some subtle way to pay tribute to Bixby as well.
Guilty! Despite the best efforts of Bill Bixby, The Death of the Incredible Hulk just isn't very good. I also find Fox guilty of shamelessly producing one of the worst looking DVDs in recent memory in a crass attempt to cash in on the new movie. (Now, if I can just get this review sent to Mike in time for publication on Hulk's opening day...)
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Trailers