Directed by Louis Leterrier. Written by Zak Penn and Edward Norton. Based on material created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee.
You all know the plot by now: scientist Bruce Banner is exposed to gamma radiation, which causes him to turn into a raging monster in times of emotional distress. Since the origin story was already covered in the 2003 film by Ang Lee, this sorta-sequel/sorta-reboot picks up with Bruce deep in hiding as the government continues its search. The two, of course, end up colliding when Bruce sets out to find a cure.
It's a shame Edward Norton might not be back for another, because I really like what he does with the role. Though I have to disagree with him and say that, while I do miss a few extra scenes from the novelization, everything necessary to understand the depth and complexity of the character and his performance is right there on screen. They fully capture the tragic plight of Bruce's dilemma, constantly on the run from others, but unable to escape the demons within. And there's some wonderful, logical additions in the form of breathing techniques and a simple pulse counter which really ground the character in reality.
And when the beast comes out, wow. I actually thought the creature in the Ang Lee adaptation was one of the few great things about that film. Now that I have a basis of comparison, that Hulk looked so clean and smooth compared to the dirty, rippling mass of fury we see here. This Hulk feels as real as we'll ever get when he lets out a Lou Ferrigno-voiced roar and tosses a boulder to the raining heavens because he doesn't like the sound of thunder. My only gripe is they drop his miles-wide leaps in favor of superpowered free-running. The sight of him hopping from rooftop to rooftop made a little girl in the theater laugh, "It's just like Spider-Man!"
In terms of the beast's once again revised origin, I'm satisfied. Yes, I'd still like to see Banner silhouetted in front of a gamma mushroom cloud, but facts are facts and modern nuclear treaties would make such a bomb test impossible. As it is, at least they found a nice way to use the version from the old tv series while slipping in some additional history that ties into the developing Marvel Film Universe.
With the beast must inevitably come the beauty. There was nearly unanimous condemnation from critics of Liv Tyler's whispery performance as Betty Ross, Bruce's former love and colleague, but I think she's great. It's not an excellent, Oscar worthy performance, but she ably brings to life a woman gentle enough to sooth a raging monster, yet strong enough to stand toe-to-toe with some of the most aggressive military men on film. I read that Tyler and Norton did a lot of prep work on their characters' relationship, and it shows because Betty and Bruce are so visibly, beautifully, agonizingly in love, yet circumstances just won't let them be. It's best exemplified by a sex scene that ends with a twist which, while humorous, tugs at the heart-strings because you know every other attempt will inevitably lead to the same results.
It terms of what I didn't like, the major element is the portrayal of General Thaddius 'Thunderbolt' Ross. And it's a shame because it's one of the most expressive, animated, and memorable performances I've seen from William Hurt in a long time. I just think the changes made to the character upset the fantastic dynamic offered by the comics.
As originally written, Ross is willing to do everything in his power to destroy the Hulk, which he sees as a chaotic threat to all of humanity. Everything, that is, but use his daughter, Betty. His fear for her safety blinds him to the fact that she is often the only hope of quelling the beast, which causes Ross to take devastating situations to extreme lengths that should have been avoided. In the film, Ross doesn't fear the Hulk, he wants to control it, harness it for the use of the government, and he'll do everything in his power to achieve his goals. Even exploit Betty.
Does my displeasure make sense? Not only do they upset a nice dynamic, but they take an iconic supporting character and throw a complete 180 on his portrayal. I understand the need for such a threat, because it gives a reason for Bruce to keep himself out of their hands, but isn't that what Dr. Samuel Sterns is for?
Sterns, in a gloriously wacky performance by Tim Blake Nelson, is a reckless scientist obsessed with the broad potential offered by gamma radiation. All they needed to do was boost his role so he, Blonsky, and Ross form a trifecta of antagonists in constant pursuit of our hero. One wants to posses the power, one wants to exploit the power, and one wants to destroy the power. Sadly, Sterns and his interests are tucked away in the final half-hour where they have little impact on the broader story beyond setting up the final fight.
And then there's Emil Blonsky. If they'd gone with the dynamic I mentioned a paragraph ago, then he'd perfectly fit into the picture. As it is, Blonsky is shoehorned into the script for no other reason than to create another monster for the Hulk to have a throw-down with. In terms of execution, I can't help but think it would work better if Tim Roth played him as a good, dedicated soldier slowly corrupted by the thirst for more power. Instead, he's a wolfish, sneering rogue who wants to take on the Hulk just because it'll make him feel like more of a man.
In terms of other problems, all I can think of is my regret that the scene between Leonard Samson (the always reliable Ty Burrell) and Bruce was cut, because it's such a fantastic exploration of the Bruce/Betty relationship. Otherwise, this is a damn exciting, thoughtful superhero movie which, while not without flaws, does show the continuing improvement of quality in the overall genre.