The movie studio might call him "The Incredible Hulk," but I came to think of him as Jose Canseco with an incredibly swampy tan. When Jose's not barreling through computer-enhanced Brazilian favelas and destroying most of Harlem in the finale of this flavorless contraption, he's sleeping deep down inside a lean, not-as-green Edward Norton. I must say I prefer his steroidal inner self.
Norton joins Robert Downey Jr. as the season's other very good actor time-sharing his part with a crack special-effects department. In "Iron Man," Downey appeared to be having a flamboyantly good time. Norton is a drag. This is partly a matter of necessity. Lest he hulk out, Norton's character, Dr. Bruce Banner, must keep his heart rate low. The movie tallies for us Bruce's "days without incident" (158 when we meet him) and follows him miserably on the run from the government.
This is all explained in a nifty, wordless opening sequence. The gist of what follows is that General "Thunderbolt" Ross (William Hurt in a bad Sam Elliott mustache and a worse mood) is hot to catch Bruce and use his gamma-rich blood to start a race of supersoldiers. So as on the 1970s television series that, like the movie, was based on a Marvel Comics character, Bruce becomes a lonely fugitive.
Norton mopes through the part almost as much as Bill Bixby did on TV. It's hard to imagine Norton sitting around thinking, "I've got to get myself in a film that lets me play a scientist hiding as a drone in a soda factory for some scenes and as a pizza delivery boy for others. Then in the really good moments, a big, green monster makes them forget all about me." But that's what happens.
Whenever Liv Tyler is around, as Betty Ross, Bruce's lady love and the general's daughter, Norton gets to make moony faces. Tim Roth doesn't fare much better. He shows up as Blonsky, a British mercenary working for the general and eager for a taste of Bruce's power. Needless to say, he gets it and them some.
The effects crew does a lot of the heavy lifting. Indeed, all the stunts and effects look expensively impressive. That big uptown wrecking-ball climax is a rousing, if hectically edited, spectacle that pits the Hulk against the beast Blonsky becomes. In the comic, this creature was called the Abomination. Yet watching these two computer-generated behemoths go at it is a notch above watching a furious round of Mortal Kombat.
You may recall that we've been here before - just five years ago, in fact. The occasion was "Hulk," director Ang Lee's frigidly received approach to the same comic book, and, boy, does that movie seem ingenious by comparison. "Hulk" was a study in psychological stress that still holds up as a criminally underrated dual character profile. Aside from the halfhearted blockbuster showdowns, it was an art-movie with military ambushes.
"The Incredible Hulk" is a commercial rebuke to Lee's psycho-melodrama. The trouble with blockbusters now is that there's no room for the risks Lee took, however minimal they actually were. This rebooted Hulk has been made with minimal cinematic or psychological value and seems utterly terrified of exploring the Hulk's erotic possibilities. Betty and Bruce make out, but stop when his heart speeds up, which makes you wonder: How many days without incident in that department?
Of course the movie does bring the green guy back into franchiseable planetary alignment within the Marvel Comics universe. If the coda doesn't promise better sequels in the future then it certainly hints at more synergistic ones.
For now there's a certain pleasure to be had in some of the physical blowouts. "The Incredible Hulk" has a fearsome playfulness when its giant star is slamming two hunks of car together like cymbals or bashing the Abomination's head into the street. But the best thing in the movie is made of human flesh. It's Tim Blake Nelson, arriving late as a biology professor. He's the one scientist in the movie with a scientist's enthusiasm for discovery. Tyler, by comparison, plays her biologist like a woman running an art gallery.
Screenwriter Zak Penn knows his Marvel, and director Louis Leterrier can certainly keep a fight sequence going forever (he made the two "Transporter" movies). But in their determination to make a reliable action movie, they forgot to make an interesting one.