If French director Louis Leterrier’s goal in rebooting the “Hulk” saga for the big screen was to distance Marvel’s franchise from Ang Lee’s brooding 2003 deconstruction of the not-so-jolly green giant, you’d have to consider “The Incredible Hulk” a rousing success: While Lee incurred the wrath of comic-book disciples with his thoughtful character study, Leterrier and screenwriter Zak Penn dispense with the angst and focus on the smash.
The result is a movie that eschews dialogue (or anything resembling an idea) in favor of hyper-violent mayhem and unconvincing CGI.
Leterrier’s “Hulk” conspicuously avoids much reference to Lee’s story, and makes little effort to explain its oversized hero’s genetic disposition to fits of searing rage, save for a photo montage in the opening credits. Instead, we find Dr. Bruce Banner (Edward Norton), the Hulk’s mild-mannered alter ego, in the Brazilian backwoods, seeking an antidote to his condition and practicing anger management.
His serenity is short-lived. Hunted by old nemesis General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt, reprising the role inhabited more ably by Sam Elliott) and Ross’ sneering henchman Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), the Hulk sees his infamous temper flare early and often, even as his still-smitten ex (Liv Tyler) tries to talk him down.
As he was in Lee’s film, Banner is unwilling to embrace his dark side and obsessed with his quest for a cure, but that doesn’t stop him from laying waste to his old school and, in the film’s climactic finale, Harlem.
“The Incredible Hulk,” which Norton helped rewrite, marks the actor’sfirst foray into the superhero universe, and while the results are mixed at best, that is less attributable to his performance, which is competent if rarely compelling, than to a script that falls resoundingly flat. Character development falls by the wayside, and Leterrier’s “Hulk,” catering shamelessly to fans of breathless, nonstop action, comes across as one-dimensional if not downright dull.
Unlike Robert Downey Jr., who invested his own smart-alecky persona in “Iron Man” alter ego Tony Stark, Norton fails to distinguish himself as Banner, except for his sleek, sinewy physique. Roth, who morphs into Hulk’s towering rival, The Abomination, thanks to some genetic meddling of his own, is sufficiently fearsome in a role that could well have been fleshed out, but this is a movie about animated monsters, not human beings.
On that level, “The Incredible Hulk” is only intermittently engaging, with its artificial-looking protagonist and uneven effects. It’s telling that the movie’s most exciting moment comes in the form of a cameo by Downey, on loan from a superior fantasy that delivers artfully conceived action without sacrificing the intelligence of its characters. Unfortunately, Leterrier’s “Hulk” is no “Iron Man.”
The Incredible Hulk (Two stars)
Starring Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, Tim Blake Nelson, William Hurt
Written by Zak Penn, Edward Norton
Directed by Louis Leterrier
Running time 1 hour 54 minutes