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It’s not easy being green

’Incredible Hulk’ sacrifices character for spectacle.

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SEEING GREEN: 'The Incredible Hulk' misses its dramatic potential.
  • SEEING GREEN: 'The Incredible Hulk' misses its dramatic potential.

You know, as a reviewer, I tend to take it easy on the big summer movies. My thinking has always been that while the Oscar-fishing fare of the fall and winter is like fine wine — something with “Chateau” in front of it, designed to be savored and judged on its subtlest notes — summer movies are the cinematic equivalent of Thunderbird: cheap, disposable and meant solely to give you a righteous kick in the head. 

That said, a summer movie can't be allowed to slide on everything. In short, the litmus test is that even a flashy, stupid blockbuster has to make you feel something — even if it's that you'd like to have your seven bucks back. Therein lies the problem with “The Incredible Hulk.” A movie that hits the screen with a bang and then just sort of lies there, grunting, “Hulk” isn't necessarily a success or a failure, which is the problem, especially in a flick with so much potential for real drama. 

Here, big-wheel-actor's-actor Edward Norton plays Bruce Banner, the tragic, Frankensteinesque scientist who, thanks to an experiment involving gamma rays gone wrong, turns into a green, 10-foot chunk of muscle and rage any time his pulse rate goes above 200. On the run from the U.S. Army's bioweapons division and Gen. Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt), Banner is hiding out in a sprawling South American slum when the film opens, trying to keep a low profile and working with local martial arts gurus to learn how to control his anger. Finally, Ross manages to track Banner to ground. To bring him in, the general enlists British Special Forces commando Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth). Now on the run and desperate for a cure, Banner makes his way to the U.S., where he hooks up with his old flame Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), who happens to be General Ross's daughter. After several run-ins with the Army and Blonsky injected with a supersoldier serum that turns him into a looming horror known as the Abomination, it's up to the Hulk to save the day when all hell breaks loose on the streets of New York.

With Norton on board and reportedly having taken an active role in shaping the screenplay, I expected great things from “The Incredible Hulk.”  I should have known better when word came that Norton had had a falling out with the studio over tone and wouldn't be doing publicity for the film.

He made the right decision. What ends up on screen is — for all its Dolby sound and CGI fury — just out and out lifeless. Where director Ang Lee was criticized for making his “The Hulk” too cerebral and character focused, it's almost as if the filmmakers went the other direction with the sequel, so scared of angering the fanboys with character development that we never get any. As a result, we never really get to love or hate Bruce and Betty or even sorta-villain Blonsky. Even Ed Norton — the actor so versatile that he made audiences care about a murderous neo-Nazi skinhead in “American History X” — isn't immune from this sympathy vacuum. We never really get to understand his Bruce Banner and why he does the things he does. In the end, you leave the theater with the sneaking suspicion that Norton's most impressive work must have ended up on the cutting room floor, just because an actor so careful and accomplished would never agree to play a character this flat.

Sure, some of the action sequences are well done, and the CGI looks a damn sight better than it did during Lee's turn at the tiller; but in the end, all the good things about “Hulk” end up neatly counterbalanced by all the bad things in the film. And when it comes to summer blockbusters, there's no such thing as a zero sum game.

 

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