Five years ago, audiences worldwide were less than bowled over by Ang Lee’s self-consciously arty take on Marvel’s most wantonly destructive superhero, which often felt less like a summer popcorn flick than like an audiovisual dissertation: The Not-So-Jolly Green Giant: Filial Consternation and the Unchecked Id. Still, the suits weren’t about to abandon a potential franchise that easily. Step 1: Lose the indie brainiacs who made The Ice Storm and hire someone with a proven track record in moronic mayhem—maybe the dude who directed those Transporter movies! Step 2: Eric Bana? Who’s he? A little marquee value, if you please. Step 3 (according to plausible rumor): Under no circumstances allow your new star, Edward Norton, to impose his highfalutin artistic notions upon your cash cow. Aim low, because it doesn’t necessarily matter whether the result is bold or singular or memorable. So long as it doesn’t actively alienate the average viewer, as its predecessor did, it’s gonna perform.
For a few minutes, it looks very much as if the moneymen got royally screwed. Correctly assuming that everybody already knows the origin story, whether they saw the first movie or not, director Louis Leterrier and screenwriter Zak Penn (an X-Men vet) audaciously compress the initial gamma-ray experiment and its fallout into a jagged, impressionistic opening-credits montage that plays like “previously on The Incredible Hulk” as conceived by Guy Maddin. The film then abruptly cuts to Bruce Banner (Norton) hiding out alone in a squalid Brazilian favela. DAYS WITHOUT INCIDENT: 158, a superimposed title soberly informs us. It would take quite a lot of financial irresponsibility to live up to the promise of this in medias res approach, and what follows, alas, is far more conventional, as Banner returns to the U.S. in search of a cure, makes googly eyes with old flame Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), and engages in various high-octane Hulk-outs that invariably involve jeeps being tossed the length of several football fields. (We do, however, get a quasi-logical explanation for how the Hulk avoids winding up butt naked.)
As you may have heard, Robert Downey Jr. makes a cameo appearance here as Tony Stark—an unfortunate choice, since his presence only serves to remind us that Iron Man, for all its sleek high-tech gadgetry, succeeded mostly on the strength of its lead actor’s personal charisma. Norton, by design, is at his weediest as Banner (though this geeky scientist still inexplicably moves like Jason Bourne when pursued), which means he tends to recede from view whenever he isn’t replaced by a CGI behemoth. In truth, the very concept of the Hulk is essentially anti-dramatic: Nebbish gets pissed off, inflates, smashes some stuff, deflates. Repeat. Since the Hulk retains only the smallest vestiges of Banner’s psyche, and Banner remembers nothing but fragments of each episode, they’re more or less two different characters who just happen to share—I was going to say the same body, but I guess it’s more accurate to say the same genes. In any case, all poor Bruce wants is for it all to go away, which doesn’t give an actor much to play, nor an audience much to invest in beyond the superficial thrill of the hurled jeeps.
Indeed, after Russo-British mercenary Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), hired by General Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt) to capture Banner, deliberately doses himself with gamma juice, or whatever, and is transformed into an even larger monstrosity known (in the comics, anyway) as the Abomination, the movie pretty much turns into a glorified wrestling match, complete with choke holds, body blows and much diabolical laughter from the designated villain. If you enjoy watching huge dudes whale on each other, you surely won’t be disappointed; those hoping for something more, however, will sense the movie shrinking even as the CGI steroids kick in. Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) does his best to provide some much-needed comic relief as Banner’s mysterious scientist buddy, but pushes it so far that he seems to have wandered in from a different film altogether. All in all, I preferred the misbegotten, art-damaged Hulk. It didn’t work either, but at least Lee swung for the rafters.