What seemed, in theory, the least-necessary revival of a bigscreen superhero emerges as perfectly solid summer action fare in “The Incredible Hulk.” Revisiting the character Ang Lee and James Schamus put under a psychological microscope in 2003 to mixed results, Marvel, Universal and several of the same producers have repackaged one of their better-known stable stars in a straightforward actioner that delivers the goods with no unnecessary frills or digressions. Happy to give the intended audience what it wants, this loud and quick-moving production will shake loose ample coin in all markets.
To anyone wondering why the Marvel team would so soon embark on a makeover of the growly green giant after all the angst endured on the previous one, the answer is provided by the final scene, in which the star of the most recent Marvel B.O. smash unexpectedly turns up to ask, “What if I told you we were getting a team together?”
New film thus marks the first step in the label’s plan to begin shuffling its major characters into films together, a la some of the comicbooks — a scheme that seemingly required the rehabilitation of the Hulk from something that came to be regarded as perhaps too rarefied, not of a piece with the studio’s other cinematic stalwarts.
Viewed in this utilitarian light, the new film gets its job done. It’s not especially exciting or surprising, lacking the cheek and sheen of “Iron Man” and the opulence and star power of the “Spider-Man” and “X-Men” series. But it’s better than the “Fantastic Four” pictures and “Daredevil” and manages to shift the title character from a hopelessly conflicted Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to a wannabe good guy.
It seems that none of these Marvel-based films can begin with anything other than a medical experiment gone madly awry, leaving its subject with a drastically split personality. This one gets it over with pronto, after which scientist Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) hides out anonymously in a Brazilian favela while desperately trying to decontaminate his blood, eliminating the cells that can make him, if sufficiently incensed, turn into a raging, bemuscled, 9-foot screamer with disagreeably antisocial habits.
Keen to track Bruce down is Army Gen. Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (a cigar-chomping William Hurt), who oversaw the experiment. He wants to bend the results to military purposes and sends mad-dog soldier Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) flying down to Rio to snatch the elusive fugitive. Resulting pursuit is a partially parkour-style chase through the pinched passageways and across the roofs of the hillside slums that entertainingly recalls but doesn’t nearly match the flair of the opening sequence of “Casino Royale.” The Hulk makes his first kick-butt appearance in Brazil 23 minutes in, but is only partly seen, and in shadows at that.
Despite the manpower expended to bring him to heel, Bruce is able to make his way back to Virginia, stopping en route in Mexico to buy a pair of stretchy pants, which he rightly predicts will prove useful down the line. In the intervening six months or so, g.f. Betty (Liv Tyler), old Thunderbolt’s daughter, has taken up with a new guy, but she immediately drops him when her old flame reappears with major issues to deal with.
First and foremost, her dad wants to extract whatever’s inside him to augment the Pentagon’s arsenal (there’s no discussion of whether or not this super-steroid constitutes a chemical weapon). Second, Blonsky, who admires his adversary as “a whole new level of weird,” can’t wait to attain that level himself. After he volunteers to receive a dose, he’s able to compete with the Hulk up to a point in an explosive battle on a university campus lawn, but he’ll need more juice to have any hope of besting the green one in a street brawl.
Which is exactly what the showdown consists of. Following an interlude in which the Hulk takes Betty to what looks just like King Kong’s cave, both he and Blonsky enlist the services of an enthusiastic research doctor (Tim Blake Nelson in an amusingly over-the-top turn) to become battle-ready. With Blonsky transformed into a creature fully justified in being called the Abomination, they proceed, ripped and roaring, to lay waste to Harlem; that the finale would seem to be almost entirely a CGI-animated sequence will be noticed but not much minded.
It’s all par-for-the-course cinematic demolition and destruction, staged efficiently and with a hint of enthusiasm by helmer Louis Leterrier (the “Transporter” films, “Unleashed”) and penned with sporadic wit by Zak Penn. Visuals lean toward the dark and murky, but editing by three — actually six — hands is fleet, and Craig Armstrong’s ever-present score is simultaneously bombastic and helpfully supportive of the action. Effects are in line with pic’s generally pro but not inspired achievements.
Norton gives indications of perhaps wanting to go places with the role that remain off-limits this time around (he no doubt would have been happy teaming with Lee), but he’s kept largely on the straight-and-narrow, to decent effect. Tyler is no more or less memorable in the femme lead than Jennifer Connelly was in “Hulk,” while both Roth and Hurt happily underplay by a bit what might have been expected of them in their villainous roles.