As a character concept, Marvel Comics' Incredible Hulk is deceptively complicated; more than just a lumbering green behemoth who likes to smash things, the Hulk is Id unleashed, the reptilian brain on hormonal overload given terrible, unmitigated vent. And then there's his alter ego, the comparatively frail and feckless Bruce Banner, a lifelong milksop nascently endowed with the power of gods, yet thus robbed of that spark which defines those who would call themselves man.
Or so it all seems, in any case. And the latest film version of the The Incredible Hulk—essentially a reboot of Ang Lee's much-maligned version of Hulk from 2003—considers these and other Promethean enigmas, but with a succinctness and a flair for visceral expression often missing from the prior film.
Lest you've somehow missed out on the four-color delights of Marvel mythology, the Hulk is an outrageously powerful man-monster, the rage-driven doppelgänger of brilliant scientist Banner (Edward Norton), who first awakens the creature inside him through a gamma radiation experiment gone horribly awry.
Banner is a man on the run at the outset of The Incredible Hulk, perpetually evading the long arm of his arch nemesis, Gen. Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross (William Hurt, sporting a ferocious handlebar 'stache); pining for the love of his erstwhile sweetheart, Ross' daughter Betty (Liv Tyler); and corresponding via e-mail with "Mr. Blue," a fellow gamma scientist whose research holds some promise for a cure.
In the wake of the sometimes laboriously over-considered plot of Lee's film, that set-up is nearly perfect in its simplicity. Reduced to its basic elements, The Incredible Hulk is naught but a Fugitive-esque chase movie that turns inward when one of the men in Ross' charge, a special-ops officer named Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), is subjected to the same gamma energies that wrought havoc with Banner's physiology, transforming him into a huge near-reptilian creature that is a greater threat than the Hulk.
Of the early Hulk reviews, a few have chided the film for being too much the actioner, as if director Louis Leterrier were eschewing the melodrama and soul-searching and convoluted backstory of Hulk number one to the point of obscuring the substance of the original Hulk mythos. Those criticisms are ill-founded, first because the movie is peopled with fine actors (with Norton, Hurt, and Roth constituting an impressive troika in their starring roles) who lend solid performances; and also because the script, while simple, isn't stupid. Norton's Banner doesn't have to dither or wax poetic about how much it sucks to be the Hulk; we see it in his thoughtful bearing, in the way he drinks in, with quiet yearning, a photo of his lost love, in the way he clings desperately to the sparse hopes offered by his correspondence with Mr. Blue.
And remember—at its heart, the very animating notion of the Hulk character cries out for an action movie, even more so than most other superhero concepts. Anyone unable to partake in the base pleasures of witnessing Id run brutally amok has no business taking a seat in a chill theater with the Big Green Guy on tap in the first place.
Director Leterrier (The Transporter, Unleashed), meanwhile, has proven himself to be a capable action director. No one will ever mistake him for Lee, a consummate cinematic artiste. But then Lee, of The Ice Storm and Sense and Sensibility and Brokeback Mountain fame, has yet to demonstrate the very specific sort of directorial chops necessary to essay successful mainstream, meat-and-potatoes blockbuster fare. His most notable "action" movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, was a lovely arthouse phenomenon that fortuitously caught fire; its bravura wire-fu martial arts production numbers were more about visual poetry than real violence.
And make no mistake; there is little poetry to be had when the Hulk and Blonsky (aka the Abomination) collide, explosively, in this film's final act. Their climactic battle—rendered by some surprisingly effective CGI—is as rousing and joyously blood-mad as any in movie memory, right up through the culminating moment when our pea-colored hero roars his infamous battle cry.
This year's Iron Man may have been wittier and more character driven; and the forthcoming Dark Knight installment of the Batman series will surely boast more Grand Guignol artistry and high drama. But measured in terms of sheer visceral potency—a potency balanced with some appropriately dark psychological undertones, and just enough storytelling smarts—The Incredible Hulk is top-tier popcorn entertainment. Hulk smash, yeah boy.