The Hulk: Big, Green, Sleep-Inducing

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Michael Gibson

Norton as Banner: I don't know about this stuff Jose Canseco recommended...

I'm about to let you in on a secret I've not shared with anyone, not even my nearest and dearest. If I'm going to succumb to that occupational hazard of movie reviewing — the noddies — it's most likely to occur in the hottest and highest-action sequences. I know this is counterintuitive. After all, those are the parts of the movies that are the noisiest and the most visually splashy — all flash cuts and zip pans, encouraging a lot of rapid eye movement. You'd think only someone suffering an advanced case of narcolepsy would be immune to them.

Not so, as far as I'm concerned. I'm like some bizarro opera fan who comes for the plot and heads for the bar when the aria commences. My latest struggle with Morpheus (whose embrace, I did manage to avoid) occurred at The Incredible Hulk. You know who he is, of course. He's mild-mannered (but extremely fit) Bruce Banner (Edward Norton, who bulks up to hulk proportions when he gets angry or excited, which is pretty frequently). The guy's so touchy, he's even afraid to have sex with his girlfriend, Betty (Liv Tyler) for fear of turning green, nasty and enormous. This figure has been lurking around the dimmer reaches of popular culture for decades — the sad result of the military-industrial complex screwing around with cell-poisoning gamma radiation, whatever that may be — without attaining more than second-level cult status.

Hulky was last among us five years ago in a movie that "disappointed" his fans and those of director Ang Lee, who usually operates at the "finer things" level of moviemaking. It apparently made enough money to encourage this sequel, and Norton plays him a little more soulfully (I think) than Eric Bana did five years ago, though it doesn't much matter to me that Bruce hates the hulky half of his schizoid personality. All monsters, from Frankenstein's onward, share that feeling and use it to enlist our sympathy. It's as routine in these movies as a fireball in the sky.

It also doesn't much matter that during this film's opening passage, which finds Bruce hiding out in a Rio de Janeiro favela sending desperate emails to a scientist who may have the cure for what ails his blood work, hope briefly flares that this movie may turn into a genuine oddity: a realistically grounded action piece. But for this version, directed by Louis Leterrier, that's not to be. Betty's dad (William Hurt) is a general more grim than Strangelovian, who wants to weaponize the Hulk. He enlists a gung-ho Russian-English commando named Blonsky (Tim Roth) to chase him down, but once they all stop running around Rio and retreat to a more generically presented U.S., the idea that I needed a nice little rest began nagging at me. For the truth is that action sequences have become as predictable and stylized as — well, OK, your average opera. Helicopters routinely crash and burn, the befuddled soldiery stumble about unleashing firepower and mostly get offed for their effort. Heavy equipment, military and civilian, gets tossed around like Tootsie Toys in a playroom. And Blonsky morphs into a creature known as The Abomination (sic) for purposes of a climactic confrontation with The Hulk that you really don't have to witness since you've seen it in one minor variation or another a dozen times before.

That said, one has to admit that enormous moviemaking skill goes into the creation of pictures like The Incredible Hulk. The sheer craft directors such as Leterrier lavish on them is awesome to me. I can't imagine how they orchestrate — or even remember — all the little pieces of film they require to build their big set pieces. That thought, however, is nearly always followed by this question: Why do they bother?