The Incredible Hulk rushes through the heart and point of its story almost before the opening credits announce director Louis Leterrier's name, and therein lies the problem with Zak Penn's screenplay. The origin story of the Hulk, a Mr. Hyde-like monster to the comparatively mild Bruce Banner's Dr. Jekyll (It is, after all, inspired by that very tale), has been told before, both in the form of a television series and two previous movies, and the point has always been the tragedy of the character. In 2003's unfairly maligned Hulk, Ang Lee approached it as a Greek tragedy. Leterrier and Penn can only offer a soap opera.
The troubled, behind-the-scenes drama, which reduced a longer cut to the one that has been released, is, of course, ultimately irrelevant to the final product, but one can still detect shades of a more interesting telling of this story, which, again, rushes through the points we know: Bruce (Edward Norton), his girlfriend Dr. Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), and her father Gen. Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross (William Hurt) were testing the limits of human exposure to gamma radiation, and Bruce himself was exposed. It unleashed the green monster within, triggered by rage (or, here, a spike in blood pressure, which makes less sense), and Bruce went into hiding.
This story in itself is a solid one, but it isn't the one the film is interested in telling. Its makers are much happier to pivot onto a plot that is heavily reliant on action, which is often choppily edited and features shaky visual effects work, and romance, which is a little stronger because of the performances. In any case, Bruce's search for a cure to his ailment brings him back from his South American sabbatical to his Stateside home and the college at which Betty, now seeing someone, is teaching. She, of course, dumps her new beau for Bruce almost without batting an eye, and Ross employs Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), a tireless, Russian-born operative on loan to the American military, to stop Bruce-as-the-Hulk.
That means Blonsky will eventually get his own, gamma-infused alter ego (called the Abomination), which in turn means Roth's snarling, fully committed performance is basically useless. The same goes for Norton, solid as Bruce, because of their almost entirely unconvincing CGI counterparts, who engage in a lot of destruction that is rendered equally unconvincing and strangely plastic. Leterrier favors quick cuts in the action sequences, too, which undermines the climactic face-off between its monstrous foes, and the Hulk's much-awaited "smash!" moment is almost laughable.
At the same time, the film's escapades when Bruce is his human ego have enough potential and showcase enough suspense that the film is far from a wash. That is because Bruce is a bit more interesting as a person, haunted by visions of his dramatic transformation and plagued by guilt that separates him from Betty. Norton and Tyler enjoy solid chemistry upon their reunion, and Hurt proves oddly perfect casting as the hardened elder Ross, estranged from his daughter because of his duty to his country. It isn't enough to lift The Incredible Hulk from its been-there, done-that routine, which is too ordinary to bear the weight of such a title.
Edward Norton (Bruce Banner/The Hulk), Liv Tyler (Betty Ross), Tim Roth (Emil Blonsky), William Hurt ("Thunderbolt" Ross), Tim Blake Nelson (Samuel Sterns), Ty Burrell (Leonard), Christina Cabot (Sparr), Peter Mensah (Greller).
Featuring the voice of Lou Ferrigno (The Hulk).
Directed by Louis Leterrier and written by Zak Penn.
Rated PG-13 (intense action violence, frightening sci-fi images, brief suggestive content).
Released on June 13, 2008.