First, a little scorekeeping: Ang Lee's thoughtful, Freudian Hulk in 2003 was nowhere near as bad as its rep. And Louis Letterier's proudly pea-brained The Incredible Hulk is nowhere near incredible. In fact, in its rush to deliver a constant rush of action it forgets to think at all. But the latest spin on the Marvel comic-book hero delivers the popcorn goods. I like what Marvel is doing since it took over its franchise business from Hollywood starting with Jon Favreau's smart and splendid Iron Man. The overqualified casting of Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard and Gwyneth Paltrow paid mucho dividends, as it does in The Incredible Hulk.
Edward Norton is the ideal livewire to plug into the role of Bruce Banner, the scientist with such a fire inside that his rage takes the form of a giant, green killing machine. Oscar winner William Hurt thunders mightily as the general who put the rage there, having made Bruce a guinea pig for army experiments to create the Super Soldier. The reliably excellent Tim Roth plays Blonsky, the militarist who envies the power Bruce is desperate to rip from his own body. Tim Blake Nelson is blessed comic relief as the nutjob Dr. Frankenstein who tries to do just that. And Liv Tyler does pretty and loyal better than anyone as Bruce's dream girl.
But here's the thing: While Favreau brought out the best in his actors, Leterrier, the overcaffeinated force behind the two Transporter flicks, keeps his thespians slaves to the thrills. And, as ever, the Hulk himself, looks like a pissed-off beach ball. He's not as round and weightless as the special effect in Lee's movie, but he aint much better. What helps is the secret smile Norton brings to the role. "That's not me," Bruce tells his cutie when he turns into Hulkboy. But Norton conveys the feeling that he gets a bit of a kick out of letting his freak flag fly. The opening chase sequence in Brazil is a dandy, with Leterrier pretending he's Paul Greengrass directing the Bourne series. Look, if you have to copy somebody, Greengrass is the way to go. Given all the huffing and puffing, I appreciated the small comic touches — Bruce searching for stretchy pants so his dick won't hang out when he transforms and Bruce trying not to get too excited during sex — again, images of the big dick thing. And props to the filmmakers for giving a terrific cameo to Lou Ferrigno, the Hulk of the old TV series.
The final confrontation between the Hulk and Blonsky, now the roaring Abomination, is like the clash of Downey and Bridges in Iron Man, only not as exciting. This summer it's the fate of The Incredible Hulk to live in the shadow of the much better Iron Man. And having Downey drop by at the end just rubs salt in the wound. There are hints during The Incredible Hulk that another, better movie is itching to bust out. It never does. But what's there gets the job done. Go, watch Hulk smash — human will have fun.