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RAGE REBORN

The Baltimore Sun

You wouldn't like me when I'm hungry," says Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) near the start of The Incredible Hulk, comically mangling a signature line as he tries to speak Portuguese to some menacing co-workers at a soft-drink bottling plant in Brazil.

Of course, comic-book fans love the Hulk when he's angry - and love a franchise when they feel it's hungry for success, which the Hulk movie series now officially is.

After sanctioning the turgid 2003 Ang Lee version of the myth (simply called The Hulk) about the scientist turned by gamma radiation into an uncontrollable angry green giant, Marvel Entertainment, in the second production by Marvel Studios (the first: Iron Man), has taken it back to its gnarly roots.

Lee tried to make the equivalent of an upscale graphic novel, with a family drama more fitting for the House of Atreus than the House of Marvel. He got caught in an untenable origin story and never exploited the exhilarating questions of the comic: Is the Hulk man or monster or both, and can Banner use his dual identity for good?

Luckily, the new The Incredible Hulk is more like those 80-page special issues that comic-book publishers sold in the early 1960s for a quarter, packed with old, favorite story lines.

A ticket will cost eight or nine dollars, not 25 cents, but this movie will give true believers their money's worth. It's hit or miss - yet when a legendary figure like the Hulk hits, the impact is startling, and even when he fans, he generates gale force.

Unifying it (just barely) is the stirring quest of the idealistic Banner to find an antidote to the poisoning that makes him transform into the Hulk in states of excitement or stress. Adorning it (and sometimes weighing it down) is a Beauty and the Beast subplot with Liv Tyler as Banner's former partner-lover, cellular biologist Betty Ross (Liv Tyler). She can recognize the palefaced geek within the dirty-emerald body that's as potent as 300 Spartans rolled into one.

A parallel quest comes from the U.S. military. Betty's father, General Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross (William Hurt),and his ace special operative, Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), aim to hunt the Hulk down and extract his essence to create a new breed of super soldiers.

But as the comic-book come-ons used to say, "Wait, there's more" - such as the emergence of another gamma-bred mutation, the Abomination, with spiky bones protruding from his flesh.

The Abomination is so evenly matched with the Hulk that it's like Obama versus Clinton their fight, too, goes on forever.

More amusing, if not as kinetic, is mad scientist Solomon Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson), who wants to help Banner cure himself (or so he says). He speaks like a MacArthur "genius" grant winner determined to justify his foundation dollars with swoops of self-delighted verbiage.

X-Men writer Zak Penn and the uncredited Edward Norton did the screenplay, and the sharpest patches capture Sterns' combination of academic pride and condescension; he burbles that he never expected Banner to be "this unassuming young man." Nelson brings off cerebral exuberance as if it were a vaudeville stunt.

Even the sometimes-awkward romance has its moments, especially when they're poignant-funny. Banner and Betty can't make love, and not just because of her new boyfriend. If Banner's pulse starts racing, the monster will emerge. Never has the male-adolescent dream line - the beautiful girl saying "It's OK, I want to" - been so fetching or funny or carried such a latent sting.

Tyler delivers it, and the follow-up (she asks Banner, you can't get "even a little excited?"), with a dreaminess that adds to the seductiveness and humor. Tyler doesn't quite do for the Hulk what Naomi Watts did for King Kong - humanize and then romanticize him - but she hangs in there, trying.

Norton is terrific at comedy and agony. The Incredible Hulk marks one of the few times he seems completely present in a commercial feature. He's got the unostentatious inventiveness that comes from decisions made before he gets to the soundstage. Norton's Banner studies martial arts and yoga and carries himself with a recessive sort of grace; he looks like a collegiate back-packer when he's on the run in Brazil.

Anyone who's read reports about the editing-room disagreements between Norton and Marvel over length and tone will be anxious to see the star-writer's (and also uncredited-producer's) version. Sometimes a longer cut plays quicker because it takes the time to establish different tones and to cement identification with the characters.

The director, Louis Leterrier, directed The Transporter 2 and carries some of that series' kick-fighting charge into this one, especially during a race through a Brazilian favela or shantytown. Under Leterrier's supervision, Hulk's fights become primeval wars: He shreds metal into shields and uses them as weaponry. So far, so gutsy. But the climax lacks texture and variety. Why set a climactic bout in Harlem if the only way you exploit the setting is to display the Apollo's marquee?

Still, the coups keep on coming. It's piquant to see Tim Roth play another man who gains power with age after Francis Ford Coppola's Youth Without Youth; he's just the right, quirky actor to convey a contemporary warrior's desire to ascend to "a whole new level of weird." The filmmakers include a succession of witty cameos by Marvel guru Stan Lee; TV's Hulk, Lou Ferrigno; and a surprise guest who suggests the Marvel Studios intend to bring the concept behind Lee's Marvel revolution, with all its interlocking tropes and iconography, onto the big screen.

Judging from this film and Iron Man, older escapists will find the Marvel Universe a nice place to visit, even if they wouldn't want to live there. Teens will want to move right in.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

ONLINE

Watch a preview and see more photos from The Incredible Hulk at baltimore sun.com/hulk

The Incredible Hulk

(Universal) Starring Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, William Hurt, Tim Roth, Tim Blake Nelson. Directed by Louis Leterrier. Rated PG-13 for intense action violence and some frightening sci-fi images. Time 114 minutes.

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