HOLLYWOOD — The fanboys will probably be happy with the latest incarnation of “The Incredible Hulk.” At least we can say that much for it — and that’s something we most assuredly could not say about Ang Lee and James Schamus’ somber, introspective and largely derided take in 2003 on the beloved Marvel Comics hero.
There’s a lot more action this time around as you might expect from “Transporter” director Louis Leterrier — a deafening, endless amount by the colossal conclusion — as well as fond references both to the comic book series and to the television show it inspired starring Bill Bixby. (Leterrier even sneaks in some of Joseph Harnell’s “Lonely Man” theme, or as Stewie on “Family Guy” refers to it, “That sad, walking-away song from ‘The Incredible Hulk.”’)
This version is indeed bigger-stronger-faster, which seems appropriate in telling the story of a guy who’s been juicing. The effects look way more ... is “realistic” the right word to describe a raging green giant, rampaging down 125th Street in Harlem, flipping cop cars into the air like toys? It’s Showtime at the Apollo, all right — unless it’s your car.
But the inevitable comparisons to “Iron Man,” Marvel Studios’ first blockbuster this summer, serve as a glaring reminder of what this “Hulk” lacks: wit and heart. Despite the presence of Edward Norton, an actor capable of going just as deep as Robert Downey Jr., we don’t feel a strong sense of Bruce Banner’s inner conflict. And that’s surprising, given that the famously detail-oriented Norton worked over Zak Penn’s script. Instead, he’s just a good guy trying to keep the wrong guys from getting their hands on some bad stuff — an oversized cog in the midst of a spectacle.
A lightning-quick title sequence wisely zips through Bruce’s back story: As we know by now, Doc Bruce Banner, belted by gamma rays, turns into The Hulk. We don’t require further explanation. On the run but still seeking a cure to his radiation poisoning, Bruce lays low in a Brazilian favela, works at a bottling plant and tries to blend in by learning Portuguese from television. He’s also taking martial arts classes in hopes of controlling his breathing — and his anger. Clearly, they’re not working.
One day, longtime enemy Gen. “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt) tracks him down with a team of soldiers, including the hungry and slightly crazed Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth). The subsequent chase, in and out of cramped alleyways, across rooftops and through hanging laundry, is thrilling. Worthy of a “Bourne” movie, it’s probably the film’s most compelling sequence, and it didn’t even require all that complicated computer-generated imagery. The irony is that the faster he runs, the higher his heart rate climbs and the more likely it becomes that he’ll transform into The Hulk.
Ross wants what’s inside Bruce’s body to replicate it and create a team of super soldiers — and Blonsky is all too happy to volunteer as Test Subject No. 1. Bruce must risk his safety and return to the lab where it all began to stop Ross and Blonsky. This means he also must run into his long-lost love, Dr. Betty Ross, played stiffly by Liv Tyler. Naturally, when they reunite in the pouring rain, she happens to be wearing a flimsy white blouse.
That’s a rare delicate element of “The Incredible Hulk,” though. From there, it’s a series of increasingly bombastic showdowns and explosions leading up to the climactic battle between The Hulk and the ’roided-up beast Blonsky has become, known in the comic book series as The Abomination.
Tim Blake Nelson breaks up the third-act monotony with a hilariously weird performance as Samuel Sterns, the cellular biologist who tries to help Bruce rid his body of gamma rays. But it’s the guy who walks through the door at the very end that’ll really get the audience excited with the prospect of more superhero sound and fury to come.
“The Incredible Hulk,” a Universal Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action violence, some frightening sci-fi images and brief suggestive content. Running time: 114 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.