Universal // 2008 // 114 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Chief Justice Michael Stailey // October 21st, 2008
You'll like him when he's angry.
We're usually good about sharing the wealth, so you don't often see one particular writer reviewing both the theatrical and DVD release for Verdict. However, with the last minute arrival of the single disc version of Louis Leterrier's The Incredible Hulk, it didn't make sense to have everyone wait a week or more for our review. So here goes...
Dr. Bruce Banner (Edward Norton, The Illusionist) is on the run; both from himself and the U.S. Military who wants to capture and dissect the Hulk for its inherent bio-weapon potential. Cutting ties with everyone he cares for, Bruce has holed up in Brazil, saving money as a day laborer to purchase the equipment and medical resources necessary to isolate and negate the effect of his gamma irradiated blood, while training with a Ju-Jitsu master to control his mind/body connection. But being five years off the grid has done nothing to slow the obsessive pursuit of General Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt, Vantage Point), who has paid dearly for his determination to capture Banner at all costs, most notably the love and respect of his daughter Betty (Liv Tyler, The Strangers), Bruce's partner and true love. Yet, when a potential cure arrives in the form of an online relationship with a leading NYC-based biology professor (Tim Blake Nelson, Holes), Bruce's enthusiasm alerts the powers that be to his whereabouts and all hell is about to break loose.
Having interviewed director Jon Favreau for Iron Man and listened to Louis Leterrier's commentary for The Incredible Hulk, Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige is batting a thousand. You could not have hoped for two more insightful, dedicated, and detail oriented directors to helm the first two properties of this rookie studio. While Chris Nolan's The Dark Knight dominated the box office, Marvel -- who, until Raimi's Spider-man, had struggled to make any successful adaptations of their characters -- has captured the hearts and minds of movie fans by establishing a new universe in which our imaginations are allowed to play. And the great thing is he acknowledges the character's past every step of the way, from cameos by Bill Bixby, Lou Ferrigno, and Stan Lee, to well placed acknowledgments of the Banner's television wanderlust, the purple pants, Jack McGee, Nick Fury, Rick Jones, Tony Stark, Dr. Leonard Samson, and the origin of The Leader. Even Paul Soles, who plays Bruce's longtime friend Stanley, the pizzeria owner, was the voice of Peter Parker in the original 1967 Bakshi animated version of Spider-man -- a fact Lettier didn't learn until well into principal photography.
Purposefully not an origin story, Leterrier and writer Zak Penn (X2: X-Men United) throw us head first into the tumultuous world of Bruce Banner -- hunted, terrified, and working feverishly against the clock to both control and ultimately cure the beast that rages within. Equal parts Hitcockian thriller, Ludlam globe-hopping adventure, and classic Universal monster horror, Leterrier and his team went for a more organic cinematic experience, minimizing the in-your-face Hollywood theatrics in order to let the drama and resulting action speak for itself. How often do you find a superhero script with scene upon scene of silent reflection espousing volumes of emotion and character development? And how often do scripts like that end up in the hands of an actor's director who loves nothing more than to pull back and let his cast do their thing?
I've been continually impressed with Norton from his big screen debut in Primal Fear to his mind-bending role in Fight Club, and there's no letup in his commitment to Banner. He has this iconic character nailed and we are emotionally invested from the first frame to the last. This investment pays off in spades when Bruce makes his way back to the States finding Betty blissfully happy in a new relationship, retreating to the shadows, once again cutoff from everything he holds dear. Their eventual reunion is a true tearjerker, with Tyler matching Norton chops for chops, establishing a solid dramatic foundation for the film's battle royale. In fact, each scene they share together exhibits a raw but enduring love that transcends current obstacles and past indiscretions.
I realize there are many people who dislike Tyler's performance, especially when compared with what Jennifer Connelly achieved in Ang Lee's Hulk, but her chemistry with both Norton and William Hurt proves to be the emotional lifeblood of the film. Unfortunately, aside from the occasional moment of clarity -- OMG, my blind obsession has killed my daughter! No wait, she's okay. -- Hurt's Thunderbolt is little more than a rolling boil and fails to take a compelling journey.
On the other hand, Tim Roth gets to toy with the character of Emil Blonsky, the film's big bad and a retooled version of Marvel Comic's Abomination. Gone are the KGB backstory, the lizard skin, and winged ears, replaced by a truly horrific visage of accelerated human evolution channeled into a brutal killing machine. Blonsky is a lifelong soldier nearing his twilight years as an effective field fighter. When Thunderbolt offers him a chance at becoming the world's first Super Soldier candidate since Captain America (another subtle reference), he jumps at the chance. But again, like any addict, the high wears off leaving the user craving more. Taking on his true monster form only in the film's final battle, the power of the Blonsky character is captured in Roth's inspired performance, rather than a CGI construct. And unlike most Hollywood superhero bad guys, The Abomination does not meet his maker at the end of the picture, leaving the door open for more Tim Roth in the future. The same holds true for Nelson, whose frenetically unstable Dr. Stearns repeatedly steals focus from Norton and Tyler, and leaves us wanting more...even if he does comeback as an egomaniacal, irradiated nut job.
Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, the standard definition transfer is solid but does diffuse in the backgrounds. I've been far too spoiled by the clarity of Blu-ray not to notice these things any more. While I haven't seen the high def version to compare, Judge David Johnson assures us it's worth a look, but exposes some of the seams in the CGI integration. Here, the CG is fairly impressive -- certainly not the best we've ever seen, but given their budget constraints, the VFX team did a bang up job. The full on transformation of Banner to Hulk in Dr. Stearns lab is one of the highlights, using Mova instead of Mocap to overlay and enhance the performance of Ed Norton rather than replace it. The other impressive application is the first major battle when Thunderbolt unleashes the Sonic cannons to subdue The Hulk. The final battle, while inhumanly brutal in intensity, tended to go the way of Transformers in that there was almost too much going on for the eye and brain to focus, and that's when you lose interest.
The Dolby 5.1 surround track is another fine effort, enveloping you in the thick of the action when appropriate and letting Craig Armstrong's score take over in most of the quiet character interludes. I do have to admit, while not appreciating Armstrong's work much the first time around, there seems to be more to enjoy here. The dialogue is centered on the front three speakers with very little directional action, but those rear speakers and the subwoofer come to life when The Hulk gets his mad on. Dave was suitably impressed by the Blu-ray sound design and I'm not surprised. Don't expect that level of excitement here.
Only two bonus features on this single-disc edition -- a feature length commentary by director Louis "Frenchy" Leterrier and actor Tim Roth, and 13-minutes of Deleted/Extended scenes. The commentary is a real treat for cinephiles and Marvel Zombies alike. Leterrier and Roth enjoy each other's company and play extremely well together. Recorded June 13, 2008, the afternoon of the film's theatrical release, both are noticeably excited and Leterrier's enthusiasm for both the film and his career are inescapably infectious. Not only that, but you'll walk away with an armful of behind-the-scenes information, respect for the Canadian filmmaking community, and a new appreciation for film itself. That being said, the deleted/extended scenes are a bit of a washout. Almost all are from the Brazil sequence, save for two Blonsky/Thunderbolt pre-injection encounters. The story doesn't suffer without them, but their presence does serve to enrich Bruce and Thunderbolt's characters, further driving the wedge between the humanitarian vs. military mindsets.
The Incredible Hulk is a timeless, future imperfect tale with plenty of monster mash action to please the ADHD crowd and enough compelling character study for those invested in seeing where this character is headed. Let's just say that once Banner gains control of The Hulk, enemies beware.
Puny film critic says "Not Guilty!"
Review content copyright © 2008 Michael Stailey; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 114 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Audio Commentary
* Deleted/Extended Scenes
* Official Site
* Cinema Verdict Review
* Marvel Universe: Bruce Banner/Hulk