“You wouldn’t like me when I’m… hungry!” Bruce Banner mumbles in mangled Portuguese at the start of this all-or-nothing stab at reanimating the DOA Hulk franchise. Delivered to a bunch of gringo-hating factory workers at the Rio bottling plant where the fugitive scientist is working undercover, it’s the first indication of the bold new direction French director Louis Leterrier (The Transporters 1 & 2, Unleashed) wants to take with what is, for all Universal’s protestations to the contrary, Hulk Part Deux. Out go Ang Lee’s comic book panel-replicating visuals, his ponderous arthouse sensibilities and those long, lingering close-ups on his stars’ anguished features. Instead, his successor does something very different – he brings the funny.
Whether seeking out elasticated trousers in a Mexican market or trying to keep his cool in a speeding New York taxi cab, it’s a tactic Edward Norton seems more than happy to run with. As both leading man and pseudonymous co-writer (a sign of a mooted dispute with Leterrier and producers Marvel over the final cut), the Fight Club actor has more riding on this than anyone else and responds with what may be his most appealingly quicksilver performance to date. It’s hard to imagine anybody making a runaway boffin poisoned by gamma radiation trying desperately to contain the raging id within even halfway credible. But Norton somehow does, implicating us in his protagonist’s Jekyll-and-Hyde dilemma while gently tipping the wink to its essential ludicrousness. (If you’re unconvinced, check out the scene where he apologetically desists from coitus with Liv Tyler’s Betty Ross lest it escalate his heart rate and bring on a transformation.)
All of which creates an unusual problem: The Incredible Hulk is at its most entertaining when the Hulk himself is off-screen. Bring him on and the picture becomes spectacularly average: a bland CGI extravaganza which pits Banner’s green alter-ego (leaner and more sinewy than the original’s bulbous Gumby) against hi-tech military hardware, exploding fireballs and a fellow pixellated mutant to increasingly numbing effect. The last of these, the much-vaunted Abomination, is the movie’s deadliest WMD, facilitating as it does an extended smackdown on the streets of Harlem that gives the film its set-piece climax. As with the Hulk, though, he’s much more compelling in human form, Tim Roth evincing a snarling ferocity and feral machismo as the carnage-craving commando who lives for the fight. It’s telling that the single most exciting sequence – a breathless foot pursuit through Rio’s cramped, vertiginous favelas – has not one fantastical bogeyman in sight. After all, who needs computers when you have two of the greatest actors of their generation going hell for leather in one of the most geographically improbable locations on the planet?
Appearing on the scene late in the day, Tyler has her work cut out making anything of her annoyingly passive love interest. William Hurt is similarly undermined as the rock-jawed General Thunderbolt Ross, this time by a small furry creature on his upper lip purporting to be a moustache. Small wonder, then, that Tim Blake Nelson shines brighter than both as a crazed egghead whose grisly fate, like a last-minute cameo from another member of the Marvel fraternity, leaves things tantalisingly open for a follow-up that might actually be worth looking forward to.
Better than Hulk? That's a given, especially with Norton and Roth leading the cast. When they give way to their CG replacements, though, Leterrier's film loses the very elements that lift it out of the ordinary.