Tuesday, July 1, 2008

4 Color Cinema

The Incredible Hulk

The Incredible Hulk

As if going to HeroesCon and dropping entirely too much money on comics is not geeky enough, Adam, Joe, and I simply had to head to the cineplex on Saturday afternoon to catch the newest Marvel offering.  And after the desensitizing effect of the Con, with the massive and nearly overwhelming stimulation overload, how would a mere motion picture stack up?

The verdict: Quite nicely!

The story is pretty straightforward: on the run from the US Army after a gamma experiment goes wrong, Dr. Bruce Banner is hiding out in Brazil, trying to divine a cure for the beast hiding inside him with the help of the mysterious online contact "Mr. Blue."  A freak occurance puts General Thunderbolt Ross onto his scent, and Banner is only able to avoid capture by the Black-Ops team lead by aging warhorse Emil Blonksy by Hulking out.  Making his way north, Banner tracks down his old flame and colleague (and the General's daughter) Betty Ross, needing data from the original experiment to create an antidote.  The General has other plans, proposing using a mothballed genetic serum on Blonsky to turn him into a super-soldier, making him faster, stronger, and able to bounce back from injuries which would kill a lesser man.  After an explosive confrontation at the university where Betty works, she and Banner are on the run again.  They end up in Manhattan, where they meet Mr. Blue -- a research professor by the name of Samuel Sterns, who has been experimenting with a blood sample Bruce sent him, creating not only a potential antidote but also lots of other samples for research.  When the General and the Army catch up to them, Bruce is arrested and taken into custody, while Blonsky undergoes a transformation which makes him something not human.  Can Banner use the rampaging force he has inside him to save the city and stop Blonksy?

The Incredible Hulk is not going to win any Academy Awards for it's screenplay or the acting.  It's a very no-nonsense action movie, with lots of setpieces to keep the popcorn munching crowd satisfied.  But that's not faint praise, because it does the action scenes very well, making for a very fun, fast-paced ride which is seriously entertaining on both a fanboy and plain-ole summer movie levels.  

Ed Norton's Bruce Banner is a riff on the Bill Bixby version of the character, a haunted, lonely man who has been on the run so long that being homeless appears second nature to him.  He gives a credible sense of intelligence to the character -- not that Eric Bana didn't in Ang Lee's film, but Bana always struck me as being almost too cool for Banner.  Norton's take is nerdy, albeit slightly, but nerdy nonetheless.  I'm less enthused about Liv Tyler as Betty Ross, as I thought that Jennifer Connelly was very well suited to the role.  Tyler has some good scenes though, especially one with her father, and she does a good job with the character, so I cannot complain too loudly.  

The villians are similarly mixed, performance wise.  William Hurt is alright as General Thunderbolt Ross, but again, I really liked Sam Elliott as Ross in the earlier film, so this change was one I was not entirely on board with.  Hurt does play him as more of a villian than Elliott did, which is dictated by the screenplay but not unwelcome nor uncommon.  His performance is believable, and if Elliott had not played him in the earlier film, I'd have no problem with his place here.  Now, Tim Roth as Emil Blonksy I can get behind.  Updating the character out of his Cold War origins (Blonksy is now a Russian-born English soldier on loan to Ross instead of a Soviet sabotuer), Roth portrays Blonksy as a goal-oriented badass, a man who knows how to get things done but is finding himself in the winter of his useful span as a soldier.  His drive and dedication are admirable, but clearly he takes everything personally; after seeing the Hulk in action, he becomes a man obsessed.  In both his human and monsterous forms, Blonksy is a viable and legitimate threat to Bruce and Betty, and you know he would stop at nothing to hunt them down, and makes for one nasty villian.

Technically the film is very sound.  I liked the effects in the last film, but you can see a natural progression here.  The Hulk looks a little more fluid and naturalistic (if not realistic), and I cannot overstate the importance of the motion capture work not only for the full body movements, but also for the facial reactions and emotion, which brings a deep humanity to the Hulk (and inhumane cruelty to Abomination).  Speaking of which, the advances in mo-cap tech from the first film is noticeable; when Abomination moves, we see the same gait and style that we saw from Blonksy earlier in the film.  It's a little thing, but it helps sell that it is Blonksy, and not just a creature.  Hulk himself is ripped and jacked, like a linebacker who's been shooting every form of performance enhancing drugs and just let loose - a real monster, which I liked.  (Lou Ferigno's voice acting, while limited to 3 actual lines and lots of growls, helps here as well.)  

There's a few flaws, as there typically is for this type of film.  While generally things move very quickly, there's a handful of scenes between the university and New York which drag a little bit.  In retrospect, I don't know if the scenes themselves are slow paced, or if my over-anxious brain just wanted more Hulk Smash -- probably the latter.  Another aspect which was surprising, if not necessarily bad, was the intensity of the action.  Hulk's first appearance is that of a monster straight out of a horror movie, and the first big clash between Ole Green Genes and the Army is rough, with tons of punishment being heaped on our hero.  The clash between the Hulk and Abomination is a brutal one, surprisingly more violent than I would have predicted -- so be careful and think about if you want to bring the kids along.  Understandably that does not apply to everyone, but it is something to consider.

All things considered, I found The Incredible Hulk to be a substantially enjoyable and entertaining film, more on target I think with what Marvel fans expect from a Hulk film.  It's not perfect, but it was exactly what I was hoping for it to be, and thus it really satisfied me.  If you haven't had a chance to check this out, I'd heartily recommend it.
(Yeah, I know, which was better, this or Iron Man?  As a straight action film, Incredible Hulk is superior, but Iron Man is a better movie all around.)

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