The Incredible Hulk.
Has there ever been a summer blockbuster fiasco more widely loathed than Ang Lee's freaky-deaky, artsy-fartsy 2003 take on The Hulk? A gorgeously misguided throwback to that great period in the '70s when auteurs were allowed to run amok with hubris absent restraint in hallowed Hollywood halls, The Hulk left studio executives shrugging their shoulders and sheepishly declining to second-guess their hotshit Taiwanese genius, as Lee saddled Marvel Comics' seminal green monster with all sorts of awkward Oedipal baggage, bizarre split-screen compositions, inexplicable close-ups on lichens and an amazingly nutzoid Nick Nolte performance that culminated in a scenery-chewing finale akin to some sort of CGI Sam Shepard black-box theater revue.
I'd been up for a couple days working on another job before I finally staggered into that first Hulk screening. Naturally, my first assumption was that I'd fallen asleep and dreamed the entire last half-hour. Before penning my review, I desperately phoned some colleagues asking: "Was I just nodding off, or did the movie really end with Nolte chewing on an electric cable and turning into a talking lightning cloud?"
So if at first you don't succeed, try try again. Hence Marvel Comics' soup-to-nuts reboot of the entire franchise. Directed by Louis Leterrier and scripted by Zak Penn (plus the usual writerly additions from star Edward Norton, here again making an embarrassingly public stink over screen credit issues and thus sadly continuing to marginalize what should've been a brilliant career), The Incredible Hulk is a base, simplistic sop to fans--as friendly, obsequious and eager-to-please as a dog that won't stop humping your leg.
The movie quite excitingly dispenses with back-story during its opening credits. We catch the broad strokes of Banner's infection by gamma radiation and the subsequent furor of William Hurt's Gen. "Thunderbolt" Ross, setting up a macho-rivalry pivoting on Ross' dipstick daughter Betty. As played by Liv Tyler, she's Bruce Banner's only true love, and also may be the least convincing on-screen scientist since Denise Richards portrayed a nuclear physicist in that unfortunate James Bond movie I can't remember the name of right now.
It's a nifty trick The Incredible Hulk tries to play here, throwing in all sorts of fragments of scenes and pretending they're flashbacks to a movie we didn't actually see five years ago. This new flick makes it clear that Lee's film is out of the equation, and instead constantly harkens back to the 1970s television show, offering a nifty cameo for Lou Ferrigno, as the score highlights elements of Joseph Harnell's original TV theme song--even craftily finding a way to put the late Bill Bixby on-screen for a moment or two.
Meanwhile, William Hurt and Tim Roth are engaged in some sort of delicious private contest as to who can overact most egregiously. Roth wins, but only because he's playing an aging British commando who willingly infects himself with an untested super-soldier serum so he might blossom into Hulkish-proportions. (Roth grows three stories tall, yet Hurt still seems slightly hammier.)
The Incredible Hulk really goes for broke in the final half-hour, culminating in a gigantic, never-ending smackdown between the two CGI monsters, ripping cars in half, howling, pounding feet through pavement and generally providing all sorts of childish delights. But despite Liv Tyler's incessant whimpering and Norton's angsty murmuring, what's missing here is the human touch.
Like most Marvel Comics, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's Hulk hit a nerve because it keyed into the readers' subconscious anger--the totally awesome idea of a great green stomping id monster lurking inside all of us, one we can barely control.
But unlike Ang Lee's misguided, often awful opus, this latest film doesn't even bother digging into those pulpy roots, and instead settles for empty action-movie competence. Leterrier's reboot might be a tighter, more coherent movie than Lee's Hulk. But it's also way less interesting.
If you really want to watch Edward Norton lose a futile battle against his destructive subconscious alter ego, watch Fight Club again.
For that and so many other reasons, The Incredible Hulk feels like deja vu.