In an effort, perhaps, to exorcise the sense of failure surrounding Ang Lee’s 2003 film version of the Hulk—which did a monster opening weekend then promptly circled the box-office drain—most of the roles in The Incredible Hulk have been re-cast. Edward Norton has replaced Eric Bana as scientist Bruce Banner, whose experiments with gamma radiation left him with an uncontrollable internal id. Jennifer Connolly has given way to Liv Tyler as Banner’s true love, Betty Ross. And William Hurt has taken over for Sam Elliott as Gen. “Thunderbolt” Ross. Yes, The Incredible Hulk truly starts from scratch—with one notable exception. In the role of a security guard on the university campus where The Hulk was born, please note the returning performance of…Lou Ferrigno.
If a warm sense of nostalgia is now washing over you, that’s exactly where director Louis Leterrier (The Transporter) and screenwriter Zak Penn (X-Men: The Last Stand) want you. Ferrigno—who played the green beast in the 1978-1982 CBS TV series “The Incredible Hulk”—is only one of the many touchstones trotted out from that period in Hulk-story. Just as the series did, the premise of the new film turns Banner into a Les Misérables-style man on the run, though the pursuing entity is now the U.S. military rather than a journalist. A briefly glimpsed television clip shows Bill Bixby—TV’s Banner—in a scene from The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. There’s a nod to the famous “you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry” line, and a package that arrives for Banner under the pseudonym “David B.,” a nod to the TV show’s re-naming of Banner from the too “gay-sounding” Bruce. Even the show’s plaintive theme music—a minor-key piano gloss on “My Way”—turns up for a bow. In every possible way, right down to the title, the filmmakers have attempted to send viewers back 30 years—to a time when comic-book nerds would lap up anything featuring their favorite characters, no matter how mediocre.
This is, of course, the CGI era, so not everything is the same. As was the case in Lee’s 2003 version, this Hulk is a computer creation, and not a particularly convincing one. Oh, he looks Hulk-y enough—a rippling mass of muscles with feet like snowshoes. But he never quite interacts with the world around him in a realistic way, which partially explains the coy way he’s kept in the shadows throughout his first appearance. When Betty finds herself alone with the Hulk in one scene, attempting to tame the beast by taking his hand, even in the dim lighting it looks like her own hand is sliding around in space. From the advances of Lord of the Rings’ Gollum, we’ve taken a step backward in motion-capture verisimilitude to the days of Jar-Jar Binks.
More mainframe firepower also means the opportunity for more Hulk-smash action than the 1970s could provide, when Ferrigno could only hoist and hurl foam rocks. The biggest gripe with Ang Lee’s Hulk was that it was too artsy and not action-y enough, so Leterrier and Penn provide a real hard-core antagonist in soldier Emil Blonsky equally beastly (Tim Roth), who transforms into the equally-beastly Abomination. And their climactic showdown in the streets of Harlem is a truly punishing, visceral battle, full of thunderous punches and pavement-crunching falls. Leterrier does know how to choreograph an action sequence, so if you’re coming to The Incredible Hulk primarily to see the jade giant make with the mayhem, you may very well walk away happy.
But there’s also stuff between those action beats—which, also similar to the television series, are parceled out in once-every-25-minute increments. There’s some entertaining stuff to be found there, including Tim Blake Nelson’s performance as an enthusiastic scientist who attempts to help Banner find a cure. And there’s also plenty of dead air. The attempts to build up the tragic romance between Banner and Betty fall flat, as Norton’s morose, introverted performance fails to connect with Tyler. Roth, meanwhile, goes from businesslike antagonist to power-made loon even faster than Jeff Bridges did in Iron Man.
While plenty of recent superhero movies, including Iron Man, have provided compelling storytelling between the showpiece battles, The Incredible Hulk just kind of sits there for long stretches until the editors check their watches and realize it’s time for a transformation. Lou Ferrigno must feel right at home.