Remember the Incredible Hulk TV series (1977-82), starring Bill Bixby? It ran for five years and 82 episodes, then several years later, NBC produced three TV movies and might have made more if Bixby hadn't died of cancer. This is one of those. It's also a Daredevil crossover co-starring the Kingpin and a backdoor pilot for a TV series that never happened, so clearly it was going to be a camp classic and a must-buy. Imagine my astonishment when it turned out to be rather good.
The thing about that Incredible Hulk TV series was that they went to extraordinary lengths to seem realistic. They changed Banner's name from Bruce to David allegedly for the sake of losing the alliteration, although the other story I've heard is that a TV executive thought "Bruce" sounded gay. They ditched most of the supporting cast from the comics and in only one episode ever gave him a superpowered antagonist, another Hulk from 30 years ago.
As a result this movie blew me away. I'm having to overlook its story to be able to say this, of course. It's a lazily written piece of TV movie junk, in which the script is something to be endured rather than appreciated. However I love how real it feels. David Banner lives in a world of drudgery and lowlifes. The pre-credits sequence involves him digging ditches, being knocked down by a sadistic moron and then turning down the offers of a woman who's obviously interested in him. On getting arrested later, he almost welcomes it until he wakes up to the risk of hulking out in the courtroom. "Maybe I belong in a cage." Similarly when Matt Murdock asks him who he is, he says, "Nobody." Most actors would have played that as dodging the question, but Bixby means it.
It's a remarkable performance, simply for the weight he brings to the role. There's some background here. In 1981 Bixby's six-year-old son had died of a throat infection, then the following year his ex-wife committed suicide. He never had another child. One can't blame him for being unconvincing when trying to be happy in The Incredible Hulk Returns
, but this film's storyline is perfect for him. Banner's gone pretty much as low as you can get. He'd cut off his own hand to avoid confrontations, he's living in the cheapest dives he can find and a psychologist would probably call him a suicide risk. It's a fight for Matt Murdock just to make him hold himself together and give a damn long enough to do the right thing, but then inevitably the tables are turned and it ends up being Banner pulling Murdock back from the brink. What's impressive is that the character should have probably been boring, but Bixby brings him alive and makes him compelling. It's not flamboyant work, but it's much more impressive than it looks.
Oh, and Bixby also directed this film too. He does a good job. He also did directing work on Sledge Hammer
, where they adored him. He even gets his own featurette on the Sledge Hammer
DVDs. "Our favourite Director: A Tribute to Bill Bixby."
Coming back to the Marvel comics elements, I'm a fan of this movie's Daredevil and Kingpin too. I liked Ben Affleck in the 2003 movie
, but to my surprise I was more convinced by Rex Smith's Murdock. He's an honest, straightforward man with impressive reserves of patience and forgiveness. He's not Batman wrestling with his inner demons, but just a hard-working man trying to make a difference. I've always seen Daredevil as being a superhero who takes his iconography from Roman Catholicism and as it happens this version pretty much embodies what are traditionally called the Christian virtues. The main difference is that he's wearing black rather than red. Apparently soon afterwards the comics decided to give their Daredevil a black costume for a while too.
Meanwhile the Kingpin is even more faithful to the original, though they only ever call him Wilson Fisk. Michael Clarke Duncan in 2003 was merely tall, whereas John Rhys-Davies is at least approximately the right shape even if he refused to shave for the role. What's more, they get his syndicate's modus operandi right too. He has agents everywhere. They're sinister! After a while you'll be wondering about almost anyone. It's a small-scale story, but that just makes it seem more human. In this film, killing just one person is made to seem like a big deal. We learn about the Kingpin's criminal organisation through a jewel heist that's almost choreography. Naturally the hoods soon run afoul of the Hulk, but even they aren't cartoonish. One of them's a bit of a psycho, but he's no panto sidekick.
For once he's even a real threat to Daredevil, who'd have been beaten to death in that trap if the Hulk hadn't saved him. I love the tone of this film. It's small-scale to the point of mundanity, but I like that. It's good to have a world offscreen, beyond the limits of our story. It makes the city seem more menacing for our heroes to be trapped within it and comparatively helpless.
So we have a realistic film about the Incredible Hulk. Um. There's an elephant in the room, isn't there? Hint: it's being played by Lou Ferrigno. To my surprise I loved the green guy's scenes as well, once I'd acknowledged that they were never going to be a $100 million CGI rampage. (Ang Lee rules.) There are some amusingly wooden reaction shots from the extras in what seems to be a tradition of the series, but it's still a laugh to see the Hulk trash a courtroom basically because he's childish. Apparently Schwarzenegger was up for playing the Hulk back in 1977, but got rejected as not being big enough. Wow. I think everyone made the right decision there. Incidentally Ferrigno's 85% deaf and only learned diction and lip-reading through a speech therapist, but has since turned himself into a proper actor and played the voice of his signature character both in the Edward Norton film
and in the 1996-97 animated series.
All that is good. The problem is the writing, which is substandard even for a 1980s TV movie. I enjoyed most of it, but the finale is the weakest I've ever seen, in anything. This is a week-old lettuce of an ending in which Banner doesn't Hulk out and Daredevil's big heroic action is to jump into a room. Nothing happens. They don't take down the bad guy. A bunch of crimelords sit there playing gooseberry, the Kingpin's underlings are conspicuous by their lameness and the Kingpin himself simply flies away in his comedy Batplane, ready to return in that TV series that didn't happen.
It's a tough call, but I'd say all that makes this a worse written film than The Incredible Hulk Returns
from the year before. That was just messy and unstructured, rescued by its actors. This however is quite a solid film until it goes down the toilet in the final reel.
It's not exciting. On the contrary it's a bit drab and earnest, with for instance an "I have plans and dreams too" speech from a would-be victim that doesn't quite overcome cliche. You'll probably be disappointed if you're just looking for superhero action, although in fairness it's out of character for this series to bring in Daredevil in the first place. However I think this is a remarkably confident piece of work in its own understated way, with better control of its tone than the 2003 movie
(which I liked). You can watch it properly, not ironically. It has drama as well as superheroes. This is all doubly impressive given that it should perhaps have been a disaster. Picture in your mind a 1980s US TV movie starring Daredevil and the Incredible Hulk. Okay, you can stop shuddering now. You might want to talk to your therapist.
Oh, and Stan Lee gets his first movie cameo in this film. He's the jury foreman when the Hulk goes berserk. There are also a couple of goofs.
- 1. Matt Murdock's talking to a witness! Are they allowed to do that in America?
- 2. The Kingpin's only enemy is Daredevil. I suppose this means he must have already rubbed out Spider-Man.
What I like best about this film is its tone and its cast. I think the Daredevil series that nearly happened would have been worth watching. I've always liked John Rhys-Davies. These particular superheroes might not seem well-suited for each other, with Daredevil's powers being far below the big green guy's, but Banner and Murdock spark off each other well and have important things to say to each other. They even both got their gifts in similar ways. Besides, this is the 1977 TV Hulk. He goes on 1970s TV rampages, not "I could beat up Superman" Marvel comic book rampages. I bought this DVD expecting to laugh at it, but to my surprise it turned me into a fan.