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The Incredible Hulk (1977, Kenneth Johnson)

The Incredible Hulk opens with a montage of lead Bill Bixby’s martial bliss. It goes on for quite a while, just Bixby and (an uncredited) Lara Parker being a happy married couple. Then tragedy strikes. Like most tragedies in The Incredible Hulk, it involves a car tire blowing out. There are three such instances in the movie. The first two are fine. The third one’s contrived, but effective. Director and writer and producer Johnson doesn’t let anyone acknowledge how unlikely the third instance seems; Hulk takes itself way too seriously for that sort of thing.

And Hulk taking itself seriously works. Sure, Hulk Lou Ferrigno has a terrible wig but who knows what would happen to hair after a person metamorphoses into a… well, an incredible hulk. But the rest of the seriousness? It works.

Even the manipulative opening montage.

It’s almost a year after the tragedy. Bixby has thrown himself into his work; he and research partner Susan Sullivan are trying to figure what gives people superhuman strength in cases of crisis. It’s not clear whether they’ve been working on the project since before the tragedy, as it ties directly into Bixby and Parker’s experiences.

The first act of Hulk is this phenomenally plotted science and research story. Sullivan does great selling all the scientific stuff (for a while at least, Hulk sounds pretty scientificy–the science variation of truthy). Sullivan does a great job with everything. Bixby might get top-billing, but Sullivan makes the movie. She and Bixby have this gentle relationship; when Johnson adds their backstory in exposition towards the end of the second act, it all works because Sullivan has been so good.

As the movie begins, Bixby’s not doing well at work. He walks out on an interview with mom Susan Batson who found super-strength to save son Eric Deon. Sullivan, playing the responsible one, has to get Bixby focused. Turns out she gets him too focused and he starts experimenting on himself. Resulting in the third blowout and the first appearance of Ferrigno.

Ferrigno’s “first day” out as the Hulk is Johnson doing something of a Frankenstein homage. The electronically amplified Hulk growls don’t work–and the wig is terrible–but Ferringo works hard in his scenes. He gets to over-emote since he’s a seven foot tall musclebound green grotesque, but the over-emoting is what the part needs. Johnson knows it too. He gives Ferringo more emotional scenes than Bixby by the end of it. Bixby’s sad, but Ferrigno’s tragic. Sullivan’s great with both of them.

Did I already mention she makes the Hulk? Not literally, of course, because she’s a responsible scientist, unlike Bixby.

Unfortunately, once Ferrigno shows up, the movie takes a turn. It’s been expansive until that point–introducing new characters, having Bixby and Sullivan’s research go somewhere–but once it’s about figuring out the Hulk, the movie starts folding in on itself. It’s just Bixby and Sullivan trying to figure things out. And dodge tabloid reporter Jack Colvin, who is very dedicated to his job, but very bad at it. Colvin’s performance also isn’t up to Sullivan or Bixby’s level, which certainly doesn’t help the already narratively troubled third act.

The movie’s technically accomplished, with Johnson getting a lot of good work out of his TV movie crew. Howard Schwartz’s photography is excellent for the daytime stuff and interior night stuff, okay for the exterior night stuff. Johnson’s direction is rather good. Surprisingly good in spots. The editing is fantastic–Alan C. Marks and Jack W. Schoengarth cut the heck out of the first act setup. Okay, they can’t make the remembered dialogue playing as voiceover work but who can? And the script needs the voiceovers for introspective purposes. Johnson likes introspective; he gets the tragedy out of it.

He’s good at the introspective stuff too. Bixby’s great at being sad. Sullivan’s great at everything, which I think I mentioned. She really holds the movie together. Anyway, Johnson’s not great at some of the action stuff. He’s fine with scaling up to big set pieces, but he’s not so great at little stuff. Like his Frankenstein homage. It’s well-directed, but the actors? Johnson doesn’t pay any attention to their performances, just how they’re moving through the action sequence. Their performances need a lot of attention, especially given the action sequence. Johnson doesn’t direct much from character point of view (if ever). Sometimes that point of view would help things.

I can’t forget–Batson’s great. She’s only in it for a bit but it suggests Johnson’s going to keep bringing in excellent performances in small parts. Doesn’t work out that way, though. Instead we get Colvin’s performance rolling gradually downhill from mediocre.

Joseph Harnell’s music has one good theme and then the rest of it is hot and cold. He runs out of ideas for the action scenes pretty quick. And the dramatic stuff only really works when he’s playing with that one good theme.

The Incredible Hulk could be better–another half hour to play with might have given Johnson some ideas for subplots–but it’s still pretty good.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Kenneth Johnson; teleplay by Johnson, based on the Marvel comic book created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Howard Schwatz; edited by Alan C. Marks and Jack W. Schoengarth; music by Joseph Harnell; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring Bill Bixby (Dr. David Banner), Susan Sullivan (Dr. Elaina Marks), Jack Colvin (Jack McGee), Lara Parker (Laura Banner), Susan Batson (Mrs. Maier), Eric Deon (B.J.), Charles Siebert (Ben), and Lou Ferrigno (The Incredible Hulk).


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The Incredible Hulk (2008, Louis Leterrier), the extended version

After seeing The Incredible Hulk in theater, I knew a couple things. First, I knew the extended version–the one Edward Norton fought for, that fight costing him the role in future productions–would be better than the theatrical release. Second, I knew its release would be contingent on Norton’s future involvement with the franchise.

So, something of catch-22.

Luckily, there’s an Internet.

The extended version of Hulk runs about thirty minutes longer. It still has the problems the theatrical version does–for example, the big long fight scene at the end is a terrible way to end a movie about three people coming to terms with their actions (Norton, Liv Tyler and William Hurt)–especially when you take into account it boils down to Hurt not liking his daughter’s boyfriend. Simplest is often best and Hulk does get there.

What the extended version improves is everything until that finale. It fleshes out characters–continuing the distilled reading, Norton’s nemesis becomes Ty Burrell (Tyler’s jealous boyfriend), instead of Tim Roth’s creepy but ultimately goofy aging career soldier.

Norton and Tyler–whose relationship anchors the entire film, theatrical cut or extended–becomes even more compelling, the film taking its time with them.

Unfortunately, the added character development makes Hulk‘s competing intentions clash even more. Making a simplistic summer blockbuster out of a tragedy doesn’t work.

Still, the extended version’s a significant improvement. And if Norton and Leterrier ever did get to do a professional revision… I imagine it’d be incredible.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Louis Leterrier; screenplay by Zak Penn and Edward Norton, based on a story by Penn and the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Peter Menzies Jr.; edited by Rick Shane, John Wright and Vincent Tabaillon; music by Craig Armstrong; production designer, Kirk M. Petruccelli; produced by Avi Arad, Gale Anne Hurd and Kevin Feige; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Edward Norton (Bruce Banner), Liv Tyler (Betty Ross), Tim Roth (Emil Blonsky), William Hurt (General ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross), Tim Blake Nelson (Samuel Sterns), Ty Burrell (Leonard), Christina Cabot (Major Kathleen Sparr), Peter Mensah (General Joe Greller), Lou Ferrigno (Security Guard) and Paul Soles (Stanley).


The Incredible Hulk (2008, Louis Leterrier)

All I wanted from The Incredible Hulk was dumb fun. I figured Louis Leterrier could deliver. Unfortunately, it’s not dumb fun, but Leterrier does deliver–and instead of fast food, it’s rather good French. Frequently, Hulk showcases Leterrier’s directorial abilities and they’re significant. Leterrier handles everything the story needs–be it rural or urban, Brazil or New York (well, Canada). The Incredible Hulk has a distinctive, maturing visual style. Leterrier adds on to the beginning until he reaches the end, which is his sole misstep.

But I’ll start at the beginning. The Incredible Hulk drops the viewer into a continuing story (sort of, again, more on this bit later) and doesn’t give he or she a lot of information. For example, expatriate Edward Norton seems to have a flirtation with his neighbor and co-worker, but it doesn’t go anywhere. Norton spends most of this time alone, not even with his dog, and it doesn’t move. Norton can make watching “Sesame Street” interesting, but the script cannot. So there are lots of cuts to William Hurt’s pursuit of him. Hurt’s not an Ahab here, which is an interesting move, but one of the script’s eventual bungles (it fails to recognize what it’s done with the character). Eventually, Norton heads back to America and the script hits the first enormous logic hole. Hurt returns to the U.S. too, but has no idea Norton wasn’t still in Brazil. Norton’s reasons for heading back are inferred, rather than explained. They’re neither shown nor told. Except maybe in the press release.

As Norton gets back, the movie starts toward its now inevitable conclusion. The Incredible Hulk is not really a continuing story, it’s just a story deferred. Apparently, in the five years in between the opening titles recap and the present action, there haven’t really been any interesting Hulk sightings. It’s an origin movie, only with the fight scene five years later than it should be.

But the break does make the relationship between Norton and Liv Tyler better. Tyler starts incredibly weak, but once she and Norton get together (actually, it starts with her and the CG Hulk), she gets good. Even though she’s a scientist (sure), her voice turns their relationship into an analog of Toad and Debbie’s, from American Graffiti, and the relationship sustains through the rest of the film. But the movie’s already half over when they finally get together alone and the third act and the big fight scene hang over the scenes like the Sword of Damocles.

The big fight scene at the end starts all right, but then it gets real dumb. Zak Penn’s a terrible plotter. The fight gets boring once it’s the two CG monsters duking it out, the only accessory a helicopter. It’s just nowhere near as interesting as the idea of the fight putting people in danger. When everyone shows up to (silently) commend the Hulk, it doesn’t make any sense… only two people saw the fight scene besides the viewer.

The script’s the big problem, summarizing too much or just insinuating too many important details. There are some great moments–and they do resonate and they are memorable–but there’s too much malarky.

Norton’s amazing–I don’t think any other actor could have made the Brazilian exile believable. Everything he does is gold in the film. Tyler’s got that incredibly problematic start (why does she have to be a scientist too?), but then she’s fine. Good even. Hurt’s okay, nothing more. He’s probably never had such a poorly written character. Tim Roth’s decent, until the script fails him. Tim Blake Nelson’s strangely bad, overdoing it as a generically eccentric scientist. His character and the lack of explanation is another big script defect.

The tie-ins to the Marvel comic books are almost all terrible. They’re only goofy at the start, then there’s the excellent scenes with Norton and Tyler on the road and the hints of what a good movie it could have been (not dumb fun either)… or the nice references to the television show. With the exception of the use of the show’s theme music, which is disingenious. Then there’s the Robert Downey Jr. cameo at the end, which is a disgrace. Maybe if they’d stuck it after the credits, but it basically takes the movie away from Norton and gives it to Downey. I’d be shocked if Norton ever makes a return to the character, given the diss.

With Leterrier’s direction, with Norton, The Incredible Hulk should have been good. With Leterrier turning out to be a great director (though the fight scene at the end is too Hollywood, not at all visceral), it should have been ever better.

Instead, it hints of a good film and it should do much more. Especially given how… incredible the love story turns out to be.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Louis Leterrier; screenplay by Zak Penn, based on a story by Penn and the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Peter Menzies Jr.; edited by Rick Shane, John Wright and Vincent Tabaillon; music by Craig Armstrong; production designer, Kirk M. Petruccelli; produced by Avi Arad, Gale Anne Hurd and Kevin Feige; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Edward Norton (Bruce Banner), Liv Tyler (Betty Ross), Tim Roth (Emil Blonsky), Tim Blake Nelson (Samuel Sterns), Ty Burrell (Dr. Samson), William Hurt (General Ross), Christina Cabot (Major Sparr) and Lou Ferrigno (the security guard).


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