Incredible Hulk
Since this isn’t a chess match, my money’s on the big green machine.

Theatrical Release Date: 06/13/2008
Director: Louis Leterrier
Cast: Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, William Hurt, Tim Blake Nelson, Lou Ferrigno

As any comic book geek knows, many of the characters being given films of late are part of a super group known as The Avengers (No, not that good TV series with Diana Rigg and definitely NOT that terrible film with Uma Thurman).

Between Iron Man and the upcoming “Captain America”, “Ant-Man” and “Thor”, many of the mainstays in the group are being introduced to audiences to whet their appetites. Now with “The Incredible Hulk”, one more possible member of the team (albeit briefly in the comics) has been relaunched.

If you were looking for a sequel to Ang Lee’s “Hulk”, then “The Incredible Hulk” won’t be quite so incredible. Since there was so much negative feedback from fans and critics alike, Marvel chose to start fresh with their humongous monster verde and chose Louis Leterrier to helm the ship.

Leterrier is known for creating action-packed films (“Transporter 2″, “Danny the Dog”) though few would argue that he’s done very much to create good stories amongst all the punching, kicking and explosions.

From the opening credits, cue in fast cuts and a wealth of information thrown at the audience regarding how Dr. Bruce Banner became the Hulk. Since this was a restart to the franchise, it was good that they provided their own spin on how Banner comes to be on the run from the law and trying his best to “cure” the monster inside. I wasn’t expecting to have to piece together so much information quite so quickly (or at all) so make sure you arrive promptly in theaters to see this take on the Hulk’s origin because once the origin is set, it’s off to the races.

Leterrier’s commitment to action is a 180 on the previous installment in the franchise (don’t worry, there’s still a Stan Lee cameo) … and probably just what was needed to keep a very important figure in the Marvel Universe alive and relevant.

To do so, the entire cast has been reworked to put as much distance between the films in audiences’ minds. This led to some good outcomes … and some not so good outcomes. Edward Norton was tasked with bringing Bruce Banner to life again and did a wonderful job, as expected. He rarely brings anything but his A game and if anyone could match Eric Bana’s performance (which was excellent, the other film wasn’t his fault), it’s Norton.

As done previously, when Banner is replaced by his alter-ego of the Hulk, it’s a CGI carnival of digital tomfoolery. The filmmakers got a lot right here – especially with the voice as the classic TV Hulk, Lou Ferrigno, provides this incarnation’s velvet tones (and a welcome cameo). Visually, they built upon what had already been done, adding detail to the rippling of the Hulk’s skin and utilizing as many shadows and night scenes as possible to help minimize the cartoonish effect a big green monster has against the likes of Liv Tyler.

Speaking of which, she’s my first recasting issue. Now, I don’t necessarily have anything against her (I do own a ridiculous amount of films she’s in … though for the most part not because of her). However, she normally shines in roles that call for a more dour performance. I mostly got an “Armageddon” vibe throughout here and part of that is the script – her character has only the slightest whiff of development and her character works best when Norton is there to buoy the scene. Still, bringing back Jennifer Connelly would have been fine with me.

Of bigger concern to me was replacing Sam Elliott with William Hurt. It’s not that Hurt isn’t a good actor, or that he didn’t fit the bill here per se. However, Sam Elliott was perfect for the role of General Ross. He has that wonderful mix of seriousness, dry comedy and authenticity that makes the character work within the framework of a comic book film. Hurt seemed a bit too melodramatic for my tastes – and again, part of that was the script so casually tossing humanistic touches about issues with his daughter and far more often just giving him “Bring me the Hulk” as a character motivation.

When it came to choosing a villain, that’s the element that this Hulk smashed (in a good way) over its previous installment. Josh Lucas and Nick Nolte plain stank up the joint – and along with that script, were the major reasons the first “Hulk” was a dud. They were about as menacing as a feverish chipmunk and gave very little in the way of opposition.

Here we have Tim Roth as a special forces soldier assigned to the team to bring in Banner. After seeing what the Hulk is capable of, his power-lust becomes insatiable and an eventual showdown is inevitable. What makes this such a more powerful element than the villain in the last film (or “Iron Man” for that matter) is the level of depth Roth was able to imbue in his character. At first just a badass soldier, Roth’s ambitions are ever-present but he goes about it very cooly and methodically. While the video game quality setups to each fight weren’t very original, it’s how Roth manages to carve such a powerful and vicious performance within the confines of the PS3-generation script that elevates the quality of the film from ho-hum to something actually pretty good.

Revitalizing the franchise took not only a new director and cast but some new people behind the scenes subtly altering audiences’ perspective. First of all, Craig Armstrong, of Massive Attack fame, came in to score the film and the music works very well. While it’s possible that my ears were just too inundated with crashes, roars and explosions, I did notice a decent bit of composition to go along with all the visuals.

Perhaps more notable though was the new direction in fight choreography. Instead of simply having the Hulk duke it out and throw trucks and helicopters (all of which is still done), there was the added element of a little Parkour/free running thanks to the guidance of Cyril Raffaelli. If you know about Parkour or have seen “District B13″ or recognize him as the only good villain in “Die Hard 4″, then you know that his style is full of energy and movement.

Whether it was Bruce Banner running for his life across rooftops in the favelas of Brazil, the Hulk jumping from building to building to ascend to the heights of New York City or Tim Roth going mano a mano against the Hulk and using quickness to avoid a blunt force death, Raffailli’s influence created a great energy and should/when this franchise continues, I hope he gets a chance to stay on and keep the fighting and movements of the characters as crisp and sharp as they were here.

Now, I’m not gong overboard here and saying that this is the end-all and be-all of comic book films. I still prefer “Batman Begins” and the second “Iron Man” will probably deliver more (the first one is fun but a complete tease for the sequel). However, aside from some mushy moments involving Liv Tyler and the film being louder than a 747 taking off over my apartment, “The Incredible Hulk” delivered a decent film.

Leaning the film towards being much more of an action film than a dramatic look at Dr. Jekyll vs. Mr. Hyde is probably the best direction to take this relaunching of the franchise. Fanboys and action film junkies should be satiated. This doesn’t have the cross-over appeal of something like “Iron Man”, which is far more accessible for the casual film-goer (or for those lacking Y chromosomes), but it’s far from the utter mess I was expecting.

I’m doling out a 3 out of 5 to “The Incredible Hulk” and won’t mind catching this again once it hits the cable channels. Perhaps the only bit of warning I should throw in is that for a PG-13 film, this was a few blood splatters away from getting a higher rating. The violence is on display here and it’s probably just another testament to the desensitization of our society that a film this brutal could be desired by so many people not old enough to vote.

And I also want to give a special thanks to the filmmakers for putting the teaser scene that all comic book films have BEFORE the end credits. You don’t have to wait around until the end to see what mysterious cameo appearance takes place (though the latest trailers have given this away, I won’t). Now, you could stick around anyway just to look for funny names, but that’s up to you.