I have a new least favourite comic book superhero film.
Just to put my cards on the table, I love the Hulk. Bruce Banner's his own archetype, a giant-sized version of Lon Chaney Jr's Wolfman with anger issues. He's tragic, scary and cool all at once, a caveman who can take down Superman. "Hulk smash" is fun, but on its own it hardly scratches the surface of the character's potential.
Ang Lee's film was of course a masterpiece, but it seems to have been unpopular with quite a lot of people, who need sympathy and help. Thus this film came to be made, with the objective of being less arty and doing more action scenes. I was suspicious, but it soon started to sound as if the new film's creators were also taking the project seriously. Edward Norton not only signed on to play Banner but did rewrites on the script, although the WGA denied him a screen credit for them. Norton and the director Leterrier later had a disagreement with the producers over the film's running time, wanting it to be nearer 135 minutes. The producers won and so I still haven't bought the DVD of this film because they haven't yet released a Director's Cut version with those missing twenty minutes. (I watched my brother's disc, for what it's worth.)
Having watched it, I now feel I have a better insight into the reason those scenes were deleted. It's too long even at 112 minutes and the reason is that it has no story worth a damn.
I wasn't joking about the "least favourite comic book film" thing, by the way. Admittedly I haven't seen Catwoman or Ghost Rider, but I'd certainly rate this below the likes of the Schumacher Batman films. They're more aggressively horrible, but they have life. Misshapen and brain-damaged, yes, but at least they seem to be going somewhere. This film failed to engage me almost from beginning to end. Bruce Banner is on the run and trying to find a cure for his condition, which we know won't happen. The army are trying to catch him and use him to make super-soldiers, which we know is as likely as ants managing to fly to the sun and even less sensible. That won't happen either. Thus we have a group of protagonists all fixated on goals so obviously ridiculous that it doesn't occur to you to take them seriously.
Admittedly there are action scenes. If you like seeing things moving quickly, then you might like this film (unless you'd prefer to sit beside a motorway). Hulk smashes. Can't argue with that. However for me the action tended to be boring, since the film provides no reason to care about what might happen when the army meets the Hulk. The outcome is a foregone conclusion. These losers are going to get squished. However even so it might have been possible for this to be scary, funny, thrilling or any number of other things. Nope, sorry. The only soldiers to get any personality at all are William Hurt (who's rubbish) and Tim Roth (who's doing his best, but the poor man's only human). You're not even meant to care about either of them. The army's simply evil this time, thanks to that aforementioned weapons programme and General Ross's inability to care even about his daughter Betty. They have scenes together, but Hurt's playing the role as Captain Ahab and so nothing registers with him except his quarry.
The film's tone is wrong. With only a very few exceptions (e.g. the New York taxi ride), everything's so uptight. I'd have liked it to relax, be a bit more goddamn rock and roll. There's a moment towards the end when Tim Roth's gone rogue and turned into the Abomination, whereupon Betty says to her father, "What have you done?" William Hurt's response is just to look constipated. He doesn't shit a brick, tell her to get real or indeed do anything else that might have come across as natural or even interesting. What he does after that is to help the Hulk go after the Abomination when he's just spent the entire film turning the whole world upside-down in pursuit of him. Eh? Come on, man, at least blink or something. I've seen Hurt do good work in other films, but here to me he didn't seem interesting or in the end even convincing. Presumably he misjudged what he'd need to do to get anything past the director, the film's tone and his moustache.
Apparently Sam Elliott wanted to reprise his role from the 2003 film, but this is a reboot of sorts and they chose Hurt. Damn, and Elliott had been great too.
There are things that work in this film, some of which are even significant. The frustrated love story between Bruce Banner and Betty Ross is good, even Liv Tyler's surprised face makes her look like a fish on a slab. I like their relationship, which manages to be downright iconic in the "Hulk roars at the sky" scene. The film comes alive while she's around, although it takes Banner half the film even to find his way back to her. Structurally, the Tyler-Norton scenes for me were the only ones where I felt I was watching a story rather than a bunch of things happening.
There's also some passable action in the Hulk-Abomination finale, which is the one area where this film improves on its predecessor. Ang Lee didn't exactly craft a bone-shaking climax, did he? Eric Bana fights a metaphor, basically. This film on the other hand manages to give us a proper superpowered demolition derby, which oddly enough is something we haven't often seen in the cinema. The Abomination gets an Evil Superhero moment that more than anything else reminded me of Alan Moore's Miracleman. However that said, I still wasn't enthralled. Tim Roth's character is still a loser and I didn't really care what happened to him, even if he had grown to the size of a truck.
Apart from that, the only things I'd recommend here are details. I like Brazil. The film begins with Norton hiding out in Brazil and it's a wonderful setting, providing lots of local character. I also liked the cameos. Bill Bixby gets almost the first lines in the film, in a repeat of one of his shows on TV. Lou Ferrigno voices the Hulk and also shows up as a really big security guard, making him the only actor to cross over from 2003. Tony Stark walks into a bar. Stan Lee also shows up early, unwittingly drinking Hulk blood in a scene that's mysteriously never followed up on. What happened to him next? Did he die or is there now a green SuperLee bouncing around the Marvelverse?
These are the things I remember best from the first hour of the film, before Liv Tyler shows up. Everything else is slipping away already. Oh, but they have nods to the Bill Bixby TV series, even playing its theme tune at one point. That was nice.
For me, this film is dead. I like the Norton-Tyler scenes and I can see that the movie has other praiseworthy elements too, but fundamentally for me it's a ride that's not going anywhere. It's not merely that everyone's doomed to fail. They're so obviously wasting their time that it's not even interesting to watch them try, plus of course the film's trying to set itself up as the first in a series and so has sequel-hunting moments like the surreptitious birth of a later film's supervillain. It manages a few iconic Hulk moments, but even on that level I'm not wild about it. His roaring at the sky is great, but his "Hulk smash" is less spine-tingling than 2003's "puny human". Hell, even if we're playing the "dumb action film" card, I don't think this measures up to its predecessor even for memorable action scenes. There's nothing as visceral as the tank tossing.
This is the only one of the four 2008 comic book summer movies that wasn't Oscar-nominated. I should be saying nice things about this film, but the best I can manage are details. I liked the Hulk's way of putting out a fire. The film has two laughs. There are some icky-looking medical scenes. Otherwise, this feels like a dumb comic book movie that's trying really hard to be a serious film and managing to be neither fish nor fowl. I respect what Norton's doing, but I think a different kind of performance from him could perhaps have lifted the fugitive angle of most of the film. Is he really a leading man?
Oh, and Tim Roth is a surprisingly small super-badass Royal Marine. Plus all his scenes with Hurt feel like dead air, since they might as well be on a different planet as far as we're concerned. That's this film in a nutshell. Marvel dudes, the US Army is not (repeat, NOT) a viable opposition for the Incredible Hulk. Commit it to memory. Cheers.
This is the only superhero film series I can think of where the origin story was better.