This is very much a sequel, picking up well after scientist Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) has taken refuge in some South American jungle where he can figure out a way to rid his body of the gamma ray infection that causes it to mutate into a big, rampaging green thing whenever he gets angry.
The heinous military man, General Ross (William Hurt), is still looking for him, long convinced that Banner is army property and that the power within him would make one dandy weapon. And former girlfriend/assistant Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) -- yes, the general's strong-willed daughter -- still pines for Banner.
The difference in the films, and the reason that this one works and the first one didn't, is in the writing-directing department. Ang Lee's Hulk stuck close to the Marvel Comics story, but took its time in getting around to the title character, who wasn't even seen till about the 45-minute mark. The script featured an overload of yacky dialogue -- not really the way to go in a comic-book action film.
With Louis Leterrier aboard on this one, the film gets to open up almost right away. The director of the two Transporter films crams this one with more explosions, more chases, more hellzapoppin' attitude than its predecessor. All he had to do was remember the source material and the audience, something that Lee apparently forgot when he set out to make an "art" comic-action film.
Here, Banner is found eking out a living in a teeming Brazilian slum, getting by as a handy man in a bottling plant, where an accident results in a bit of his gamma-charged blood getting mixed into a bottle of orange pop. In one of many oddball humorous sequences, the unlucky American consumer who ends up drinking that pop is played by Stan Lee.
What? Gamma poisoning on our shores? Originating in Brazil? Call the military!
The pace picks up quickly when General Ross brings in eager, scrappy British Army man Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) to head up a black ops mission to find Banner and bring him home.
You know that Leterrier is right at home at the beginning of a lengthy Bourne-like foot chase through the back streets and across the rooftops of Rio, accompanied by an exciting score of strings and percussion. And you know he's chosen the right actors when Hurt, carrying himself stiffly and staring out from behind cold, steely eyes, is seen walking next to Roth, who lumbers along easily and can hardly contain the excitement he's feeling.
While Eric Bana was directed to playing his Banner flatly in the first film, Norton allows a wealth of emotions to run across his face. While poor Jennifer Connolly wasn't given enough to do with her Betty Ross part in the first one, Liv Tyler lets the acting chops she's apparently been hiding come up for some air. She's especially good when she first sets eyes upon Banner after a long absence. Both Norton and Tyler are terrific during the awkward, longing silences soon after they're back together.
But let's not forget that action, which is never far away. The military is regularly on the tail of the Hulk. They keep getting close, he keeps repelling them, then getting away. When a new character, the ever curious but not very cautious Dr. Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson), is introduced, a whole new energy enters the equation, as does another nemesis for the Hulk. A product of additional gamma experimentation, he's known as the Abomination, and he's much much meaner than our green guy.
Also much uglier.
What follows is a real slobberknocker of a fight, with visual effects and sound design ramped up and amped up about as high as they can go. The film's brief coda knocks it all back down a few levels, and while it borrows too much from the original, it also goes about perfectly setting up another sequel -- one that's likely to be joyously jammed with heroes and villains.
THE INCREDIBLE HULK
Directed by Louis Leterrier
Starring Edward Norton, Liv Tyler