THE INCREDIBLE HULK
Up until its final reel, when the movie lapses into a tiresome big-screen adaptation of Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots, The Incredible Hulk is a pretty entertaining superhero blockbuster, in large part because it doesn't much feel like a typical superhero blockbuster.
Director Louis Leterrier is the action-thriller maestro behind Jason Statham's The Transporter films, and his gifts for relentless momentum and razor-sharp editing rhythms serve him well here. The character's origin story, wherein research scientist Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) turns mean and green through a gamma-ray experiment gone awry, is handily dispatched during the opening credits, and the movie's first 20 minutes, primarily set amongst the slums of Brazil, play like City of God on amphetamines; considering that its title character is a lumbering behemoth with feet twice as big as his head, The Incredible Hulk is oftentimes remarkably nimble. At nearly two hours, it zips along with confidence and unexpected cleverness - there are tongue-in-cheek cameos by TV Hulk-sters Lou Ferrigno and the late Bill Bixby, and although the joke demands a payoff we're not given, Stan Lee's obligatory cameo is the most enjoyable one the Marvel Comics impresario has yet delivered - and the film is earnest without being a drag.
Most would agree that the same could not be said for Ang Lee's notoriously glum tackling of this material in 2003's Hulk, and Leterrier and screenwriter Zak Penn have obviously gleaned a lot about What Not to Do via Lee's more-artistic, less-enjoyable offering. (Trading Eric Bana for Edward Norton marks a significant improvement right off the bat.) For most of its length, nearly everything about this upgrade, from the performances to the dialogue to the pacing, feels more satisfying than it did five years ago - everything except the uninspired storyline, which concerns the entrapment of the Hulk for use as a military weapon. You've gotta ask: If the government is able to employ the same gamma-ray experimentation to turn Tim Roth's character into a similarly gargantuan - and more verbal - monster, what the hell does it need the Hulk for?
Sadly, the wheels eventually fall off the cart, as the movie climaxes with an extended, brutish free-for-all that's like the second (or 72nd) coming of Godzilla, as the Hulk and the Abomination bash brains and buildings amidst the streets of Harlem. (These CGI creations, also sadly, are unmistakably effects, and blend into their real-life environments far less believably than Peter Jackson's Gollum did.) Yet for all the destruction, the movie remains a harmless-enough summertime diversion with considerable human appeal - Tim Blake Nelson gives one of his fantastically eccentric Tim Blake Nelson performances - and if The Incredible Hulk's final, and finest, scene is to be trusted, even wittier adventures might be just around the corner. Most people I know are exhausted by Hollywood's onslaught of cinematic superhero adaptations, but if they're the only way audiences are going to be treated to more scenes between William Hurt and Robert Downey Jr., by all means keep 'em comin'.
M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening involves a mysterious virus or pollen or something that causes seemingly rational people to kill themselves. As far as I know, that virus or pollen or something did not enter the auditorium where I saw The Happening, but I could certainly relate. (As could, I'm assuming, the woman seated behind me, who said to her companion, "I hate this movie.") This latest endeavor isn't the staggering humiliation that Shyamalan's Lady in the Water was, but it's the next-worst thing: a fright flick with an intriguing premise, gorgeous cinematography (by Tak Fujimoto), and such atrocious acting and writing that you have little choice but to stare at the thing with slack-jawed disbelief. It's the kind of aggressively bad movie that you want to kick in the shins and slap upside the head, as a warning to the others.
Has any major director ever been as cruel to his leading performers as Shyamalan is to Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel in The Happening? I mean, ever? With their overscaled eye-popping meant to suggest Bambi-esque naïveté, these usually talented actors are so laughably misdirected here that it might be years before I'm again able to watch them with a straight face, and the excruciating dialogue that they and their co-stars are forced to utter - never worse than when Shyamalan is aiming for oddball humor - dispels any tension inherent in the film's setup. (This particular universe doesn't seem much worth saving; more suicides just means fewer idiots around to deliver pithy platitudes and bum jokes.)
The less said about the film the better. But I must make mention of The Happening's one good scene, coupled with the film's one good performance, in which a feral Betty Buckley - out of the blue - violently smacked the hand of a little girl reaching for a cookie. Our audience initially jumped at the outburst, and then laughed, and then a guy in the back actually applauded. If the kid had been played by M. Night Shyamalan, I probably would've applauded, too.