Here are a few statistics on the 2003 film Hulk:
- Directed by Oscar winner Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger)
- Written by Michael France (Cliffhanger), James Schamus (The Ice Storm), first-timer John Turman (and maybe 15 other screenwriters)
- Estimated budget: $137 million
- Worldwide box office: $245 million
- Rotten Tomatoes score: 61% positive
- IMDb user rating: 5.8 out of 10
So I ask you this: Are we talking about a failure ... or an underrated movie that's been unjustly labeled a failure? It matters not, I suppose, because the arrival of the all-new The Incredible Hulk, Marvel (and Universal) hopes to leave the first Hulk cowering in a dusty vault somewhere. (Until the next DVD re-release, of course.) So while I felt a strange bit of resentment towards this "forget that first movie, let's get a do-over" procedure, I felt pretty confident about the second Hulk's chances. Director Louis Leterrier has shown some skill with action flicks like Unleashed and Transporter 2, the new cast (which includes Edward Norton, Tim Roth, Liv Tyler and William Hurt) was pretty impressive, and (best of all) the producers were making one simple promise from the outset: More action.
Suffice to say those producers weren't lying. While it doesn't measure up to the lofty standard laid down by last month's Iron Man, this new Hulk flick is quite a bit better than the early skeptics would have you believe. You could retitle this flick The Hulk is Bourne, and it would be a perfectly appropriate description (albeit a really awful pun). Stripped-down, gritty, and bereft of any excess fat, The Incredible Hulk feels like a combination between high-end Marvel-ized mayhem, the "constant chase" dynamic of the Bourne series, and a modernized take on the Jekyll & Hyde story in which a perfectly nice guy lives with a raging beast beneath his skin.
The plot is a refreshingly simple affair: Bruce Banner has been hiding in Brazil, but a nasty U.S. general has discovered his whereabouts -- and this guy desperately wants the secret to The Hulk. Banner must hightail it into the jungle, find his way back to the States, retrieve some important DNA data, and locate a scientist who MIGHT be able to quell the green beast. And of course we have a love interest who tags along and an evil henchman who keeps injecting himself with bad medicine and chasing Banner all over the planet. Fun, simple stuff. (Unless of course you're a CGI technician, in which case you really earned your pay here. The ol' green guy -- and his massive new nemesis -- look simply, um, incredible.)
In many ways superior to Ang Lee's first Hulk tale, Movie 2 doesn't waste any time getting started. The opening credits sequence offers a nifty little "origin story flashback" that works really well because, let's face it, you either saw the first flick already, or by this point you're not all that interested in the old-school history of The Hulkt. You just want two hours of well-crafted and exciting craziness, with just a hint of actual humanity to make it all seem kinda ... real. And The Incredible Hulk delivers the goods in that department. Whereas Lee's Hulk was a fairly brooding and angst-y affair, Leterrier's take focuses more on action, tension, and a surprising amount of wit. Of course you'll get a fair dose of the excellent Edward Norton as he struggles with his inner demon, and there's a surprisingly effective love story that keeps the drama moving forward -- but this flick is at its best when it's doling out the dynamite.
Leads Edward Norton and Liv Tyler strike a really warm chemistry together (which I didn't expect), and this allows even the "talky bits" to work well, and hey get this: William Hurt is really excellent as a general with an evil plan. (Is William Hurt ever not good?) Tim Roth wisely underplays his bad-ass mega-commando character early on, which makes a lot of sense when you consider the "transformations" this villain undergoes before it's all over. Tim Blake Nelson provides a very welcome dose of witty exposition / comic relief as a helpful scientist, which is what I call character-actor icing on a big green cake.
So Marvel's own movie division is now two-for-two in the adaptation department. Iron Man was an unexpected home run from Jon Favreau and company, and The Incredible Hulk is a very powerful triple off the wall. I liked Ang Lee's version (with several reservations) because he tried to do something alternately smart and silly with the characters. I liked The Incredible Hulk even better because it brings us back towards the Banner we know from the comic books (and the beloved TV series from the 1970s), and it strikes a really impressive balance between the quiet and the riot.
Plus I think it's really cool that my favorite superhero warrants two massive movies in five years.