Well, you can’t blame them for trying. After Ang Lee laid an egg with his oddball, ambitious rendering of Marvel Comics’ Incredible Hulk in 2003, the movie division of Marvel decided to take another crack at the popular character, with the relatively foursquare Louis Leterrier (“The Transporter”) stepping in as director and actors Edward Norton, Liv Tyler and William Hurt subbing for the first film’s Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly and Sam Elliott.
And while “The Incredible Hulk” will thrill fanboys with its many references to both the comic book and TV incarnations of the character, this new movie, in its own way, also leaves something to be desired. While Lee’s “Hulk” often felt inert, eventually building up to an incomprehensible climax, Letterier’s hits all the usual action-movie beats before building to an inert climax.
Even if there weren’t script and performance deficiencies — and there certainly are — the big problem with both “Hulk” movies is that the lead character is an unconvincing CG creation more reminiscent of Jar-Jar Binks or the big-screen Scooby-Doo than, say, the sleek and streamlined Iron Man. Robots (and armored men) can be faked fairly effectively, but flesh-and-blood creations are still tough to achieve with any degree of believability.
Picking up five years after “Hulk,” “Incredible Hulk” begins with Bruce Banner (Norton) hiding out in Brazil, trying to control his pulse and his anger lest he transform into the raging green behemoth. A minor accident at the bottling plant where Banner works attracts the attention of General “Thunderbolt” Ross (Hurt), who’s been obsessively searching for Banner for the last five years, hoping to turn his gamma-radiated blood into a weapon that can be injected into test subjects for the army’s “Super-Soldier” program.
(Comics fans know that Captain America was the product of that program; not coincidentally, there’s a “Captain America” movie in the works. “Incredible Hulk” also plants the seeds for the eventual “Avengers” film with a much-promoted cameo by Robert Downey, Jr.; Iron Man and the Hulk are two of the founding members of the Marvel supergroup.)
Ross’ men flush Bruce out, and he sneaks back into the U.S., hoping to get scientific data from his old girlfriend and collaborator Betty (Tyler), who happens to be Ross’ daughter. Meanwhile, soldier Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), shaken by his encounter with the Hulk, makes a devil’s bargain with Ross to be injected with experimental materials that will make him stronger, eventually turning him into the monstrous Abomination.
All of this leads, of course, to a big battle between the Hulk and the Abomination in the streets of New York — kudos to the filmmakers for setting it in Harlem and not Times Square for a change — but it’s all noise and brawling cartoons. If slam-bang extravaganzas exist to build up to a big showdown, it needs to be more interesting than this one.
Almost as underwhelming as the CG Hulk is Norton — Bruce Banner is supposed to be tormented and driven, but Norton makes him merely whiny. Tyler, at least, does miracles with the thankless role of The Girl; it’d be interesting to see her play Betty opposite Bana’s superior Banner. And with talented actors like Hurt, Roth and Tim Blake Nelson (as a hyped-up scientist) in the cast, I once again cite my Summer Slummer rule: Producers who class up their popcorn flick with great performers have to spend an equivalent amount of money making four or five literate, grown-up movies with the same cast.
With a quantum leap in computer graphics technology, it’s quite possible that we’ll eventually get an effective big-screen rendering of the Hulk. In the meantime, however, the second time is most definitely not the charm.