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(Widescreen 2-Disc Special Edition) (2003)
Starring: Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly
(DVD from Amazon)
. "The Incredible Hulk"

The original "Hulk" might have bombed at the boxoffice (the studio calls it "disappointing" when worldwide receipts don't quite repay the production budget), but the studio wasn't going to take failure for an answer. Someone thought there was still paydirt to be mined out of this concept and redid it with a new cast and a new director. Preserved this time out is the unique character of the superhuman tragic figure--possibly the only hero out of Marvel comics who not only doesn't want his power, and works at great pains to shed it, but is a psychological basket case because of it.

Well, not so much under actor Edward Norton's interpretation as under Eric Bana's, but that's the point of the redo. Less of the angst and internal moodiness carried over from director Ang Lee's 2003 version is the gamble here, and the big hope for greater success under Louis Leterrier's ("The Transporter 2") directorial hand.

Of course a new writing team was brought in as well for credit (or blame, if you're so inclined), consisting of Zak Penn, no stranger to superheros with "X-Men: The Last Stand," and "Fantastic Four" under his belt; and no less than the star himself, Edward Norton, working on his first screenplay. The rest is on the shoulders of the CGI team which remains seamlessly dependable throughout.

Scientist Bruce Banner (Norton) is hiding out from the military, to whom he's a potential weapon that can spawn a whole army of Hulks. (Can you see it? Hulks against Orcs?) Banner has chosen his hiding place about as well as anyone could, burying himself amidst the slum of a Brazilian favela (Rio de Janeiro) and posing as an American expatriot working for a living in a local bottling plant. His only contact is codenamed "Mr. Blue" (or, was that Green?), a fellow geneticist back at his labroratory with whom he's been computer messaging, trying to find a chemical antidote that would reverse the genetic accident that produces his change to a mindless, green deconstructionist of men and machines.

The worst part of Banner's exile from home is the emotional toll it takes on his "normal" state as a healthy American male. In running from his pursuers he has had to separate himself from Dr. Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) with whom he shares strong, but not yet expresssed or consummated, feelings. All the more reason to get rid of his uncontrollable side. With all due movie irony, Betty is the daughter of the very man hunting Banner down, Gen. Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross (a by-the-book William Hurt), who will stop at nothing to recapture his prize.

When intel is picked up regarding Banner's location, Ross dispatches a special forces team headed by blood-thirsty Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) who is so intent on self-glory he knows no fear. When Banner's dog alerts a sleeping Banner to an impending intrusion, the result is a chase through narrow streets and over rooftops of the favela, a pursuit that clearly takes its inspiration from "The Bourne Ultimatum," modified downward in order to (finally) allow the transformation we've been waiting for.

This first appearance of the oversized green monster is staged in such a way as to heighten the fearsome quality of his incredible hulkiness, playing it largely in the shadows and backlit mists of the bottling plant. By the time a soldier gets close enough to make it out, the soldier's a goner! If we didn't have an affection for this vegetarian King Kong, these images would be in our nightmares. As rapid fire bullets fly through Hulk's hide with little effect, and the squad takes a slow, methodical beating, Blonsky's blood boils in amazement... and a thirst to "be like that."

The reason to see this film is to enjoy how the creative team exploits the concept to give us unique new thrills with a somehow human "Transformer," and how they put it together in a new (and improved) story line. The challenges of providing the big moments that expose the Hulk's power, as well as the limits of its power, is largely met, and the improved mental health of the character will prove to be less of a "disappointment" to the studio than its predecessor. It could have benefitted, however, by more of a creative stretch. It falls somewhat short of expectations.

One thing's for certain: there's hardly an actress in Hollywood who has such a natural way of exuding love than Liv Tyler. Despite her queen Arwen in the "Lord of the Rings" series, her calm, spiritual connection is more than just ethereal, and she can make a man yearn to be the object of her attention. In any case, her affect makes it credible that she has the power to molify the rampaging beast, proving that there's some communicative remnant of Banner when the 21st century Frankenstein emerges from his base DNA.

Norton doesn't seem like a first choice for this action figure given his lean, almost undernourished stature, though there does seem to be some attempt to give him as much bulk as his body type allows. Interestingly, it doesn't seem to matter since the transformation is to something detached, not a person altogether, and the effect makes the case that the alter egos don't need to be associated through musculature, as it was thought in the 1978 TV version with bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno (who makes a cameo appearance). It is after all, wrought by a chemical process and a guy -- even a small one like Tim Roth -- can emerge as an abominable, steroidal hulk enormous (and ugly) enough to challenge our own giant.
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There are other little surprise appearances, particularly a socko one in the last few minutes that will simply not be revealed here but which carries a very comic-book-style promise (and promotion) of future adventures.

Tim Blake Nelson energizes the movie at a critical juncture as the mysterious Mr. Blue who is, in reality Banner's science colleague Samuel Sterns. Nelson's always a bit over the top but it works well in the context and his casting proves a propitious and humor-inducing choice. "Abomination" is his word.

Which is not at all what you'd call this movie. It's more a fun romp in superhero territory that is forced by its concept to generate a unique brand of action and stimulation. If the plot had as much muscle as the title character it would be a different story.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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