Instead, French director Louis Leterrier (Transporter) catapults Edward Norton's Bruce Banner, pursued by military mad men, from the slums of Rio De Janeiro through Central America and up the Eastern Seaboard, before arriving in Manhattan for a car-shredding smackdown with a creature who's even more pissed off than our hero's rage-infected alter ego.
As the man/monster says during an early confrontation with one of his tormenters: "You don't understand. Me angry -- very bad."
Well, yeah. But when Hulk is very bad, the movie is very good. It's about the action, and Norton -- a brainy Yale-educated, Oscar-nominated actor -- doesn't get much chance to demonstrate Bruce Banner's ingenuity. Then again, the movie's not called The Life and Times of Bruce Banner. When the Green One gets his first broad-daylight beauty shot at "Culver University" about 40 minutes into the film, it's a spectacle to behold.
More review, more pictures and some spoilers after the jump.
Credit Rhythm & Hues visual effects supervisor Kurt Williams, who fused CG and motion-capture performances by former Cirque Du Soleil gymnast Terry Notary, with shaping Hulk's campus meltdown and his climactic Manhattan rumble with The Abomination.
Norton runs and bums a lot throughout the movie, and the rest of the cast keeps it simple. Liv Tyler doesn't even try to pull off the clinical manner you might expect from a professor of cellular biology, but who cares: As Banner's unconflicted girlfriend, she generates a sweet chemistry with Norton, and even gets to flash a little temper of her own in the middle of a New York City traffic jam. William Hurt plays General Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross with understated malice.
The juicy stuff goes to Tim Roth's Emil Blonsky. An expert at the craft of film villainy who earned an Oscar nomination as a sadistic creep in Rob Roy, Roth convinces as an increasingly rabid special-ops officer hankering for a more youthful body so he can do some real damage.
At the movie's start, Banner is strapped down in a dentist's chair from hell when he Hulks out and goes into a rage, sending girlfriend Betty into a coma as his experiment in gamma-ray irradiation goes haywire. Some 158 days later, Banner's hiding out in a Brazilian slum and instant-messaging a mysterious Mr. Blue to figure out an antidote. To pay rent, Banner works in a soda-bottling factory; a drop of his blood gets into one of the beverages, setting up Marvel Comics kingpin Stan Lee's second cool cameo of the summer blockbuster season.
The mishap leads the military to Banner's hideout and a Bourne Identity-style foot race over the rooftops of the favela (although this one's not as inventive as the spy flick's). The chase culminates in a dimly lit Hulk event that shocks and awes Blonsky. "He threw a forklift truck like it was a softball," he mutters. "This is a whole new level of weird."
Banner wakes up wearing shredded pants in Guatemala and eventually makes his way back to his lab in Virginia, where he tearfully reunites with a fully recovered Betty. Posing as a pizza-delivery man to recover his research data, Banner has a sly exchange with the lab's security guard (played by Lou Ferrigno, giving TV's Hulk his due props with another sweet cameo).
After a helicopter-smashing temper tantrum on campus, Hulk and Betty high-tail it to the Great Smoky Mountains, where they enjoy a King Kong moment that allows the big green guy to show his tender side (and paves the way for a later romantic scene that shows a very real reason Banner's so bummed about his Hulk problem). Then it's onward to New York, where goofy scientist Samuel Sterns (aka Mr. Blue, played by Tim Blake Nelson) gets off some of the film's funniest lines before strapping Banner down, wiring up his head with electrodes and injecting him with God knows what.
Eventually, a power-drunk Blonsky bulks up on gamma rays, turns into the Abomination, and tears up the streets of Manhattan. In response, Banner dives out of a helicopter and emerges from the crushed sidewalk in full Hulk mode.
Then Hulk and the Abomination fight like only twin gamma titans can, in an extended battle scene made to savor on the big screen.
Hulk's travels are also gorgeously photographed by cinematographer Peter Menzies Jr. (Die Hard: With a Vengeance, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider), but our superhero's journey is seriously marred by a nearly nonstop bombastic musical score that spells out every beat of the action.
Zak Penn's solid but not particularly breath-taking story line slips in those sly cameo appearances en route to a forward-spin at the end that should leave fans slobbering for more: After the titanic dust-up between Hulk and Abomination, Hurt's weary general is nursing a drink in a saloon when a visitor walks up with a word of encouragement. It's ... never mind -- just another mighty Marvel cameo (and this one comes before the credits).
Vengeance is sweet, but the Avengers are sweeter.
WIRED: The Abomination, since power may corrupt but absolute power breeds absolutely awesome fight scenes; Marvel crossover cameos; expressive CGI work.
TIRED: For the love of God, pump down the volume -- Craig Armstrong's unrelenting soundtrack fills nearly every second of screen time.
Image courtesy Universal Pictures