If YOU’VE ever gotten angry, I mean really angry, you feel a kinship with “The Incredible Hulk.” First he gets mad, then he gets even, flattening everything in sight. Even being green seems a small price to pay for power like that.
The people at Marvel Entertainment also have a soft spot for this problem child of superheroes. They’ve brought the monster from the id back to the big screen, attempting to reanimate the franchise after 2003’s lackluster “The Hulk,” directed by Ang Lee. The result is solid and efficient, if unadventurous, illustrating both the lure and the limitations of comic book extravaganzas.
Going as far as possible from the thoughtful Lee, the producers hired French action director Louis Leterrier, responsible for “The Transporter” and the Jet Li-starring “Unleashed.” And, with Ed Norton as scientist and Hulk alter ego Bruce Banner and Tim Roth as his rival Emil Blonsky, at least a hint of strong acting and dramatic interest was ensured.
The hook of the Hulk franchise is that far from reveling in the destructive power he literally has at his fingertips -- the character’s origins are briskly recapped in the opening credits -- Banner would rather do without it.
So we find Banner hiding out in one of Rio de Janeiro’s teeming favelas, learning Portuguese with the help of “Sesame Street” and celebrating 158 days without an incident of murderous rage.
Unfortunately, Banner’s perennial nemesis, the wooden Gen. Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt), believes “that man’s whole body is the property of the U.S. Army.” He tracks Banner down and recruits Blonsky from Britain’s Royal Marines to spearhead a standard snatch-and-grab operation.
As anyone could have predicted, nothing is standard when the Hulk is concerned. But as it turns out, the Rio setup followed by the requisite chase through the favelas’ narrow lanes make the film’s crisp, purposeful opening half-hour the most satisfying part of the film.
The chase also offers Blonsky a glimpse of the Hulk’s power, and once he witnesses it he must procure a piece of that action for himself.
The scheming general, of course, is all too happy to oblige, which sets up a final reel confrontation between the Hulk and something called the Abomination.
Norton and Roth are strong actors, and Liv Tyler is properly empathetic as Banner’s longtime girlfriend, Betty Ross, whom the scientist reunites with because (a) he really loves her and (b) he is in desperate need of some stretchy pants, having shred several earlier pair in his violent transformations.
Although Norton is good at playing Banner’s ambivalence, he doesn’t do the creature moments, which come courtesy of motion capture combined with CGI.
That transformation into someone with muscles where other people can’t even imagine muscles is initially satisfying, but as generations of angry people have found before him, there’s not much of interest you can do when you get that mad.
This same problem dogs the final confrontation between the Hulk and the Abomination. Watching two essentially cartoon characters go at each other in some bizarre combination of mixed martial arts and sumo wrestling will be involving only for the very young, and the lack of suspense as to who will come out on top is noticeable.
The worst, however, is saved for last and is a function of the chronic self-referential nature of Marvel films. “The Incredible Hulk,” for instance, has both the obligatory appearance for Marvel co-creator Stan Lee (could his inclusion be a clause in the standard Marvel contract?) as well as a sweet scene between Norton and Lou Ferrigno, in which the current Hulk gets to tell the actor-bodybuilder who played the Hulk in the old TV series, “You are the man.”
Rather than go to the trouble of crafting a dramatically satisfying conclusion, “The Incredible Hulk” blows the audience off and takes the air out of its previous solid work by ending with what is essentially a shameless trailer for the next Marvel movie. You can almost hear the producers snickering, “See you next time, suckers.” Not if we can help it.
“The Incredible Hulk.” Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action violence, some frightening sci-fi images and brief suggestive content. Running time: 2 hours. In general release.