10 July 2008

The Incredible Hulk

...not to be confused with Ang Lee's 2003 Hulk, which was less incredible and more sleep-inducing. 2008's The Incredible Hulk is a kinda, sorta sequel and kinda, sorta reboot of the franchise starring Edward Norton in a soft-spoken, nuanced performance. I was surprised by how the story unfolded early on, with Bruce Banner in hiding and trying to deal with the menace he's already been saddled with (the opening credits remind you of his radioactive incident, of course). When Norton isn't the Hulk, many of his scenes are told with simple looks. Norton carries a good chunk of the film with his eyes, which for the most part are sad and forlorn. Though he's done quite a few flicks since, my last impression of him was his mail-it-in performace in The Italian Job, so it's good to see him back to form.

The film as a whole is solid if unspectacular. I liked the patience of the opening sequences, how the film takes its time establishing Banner's fugitive life in Brazil (which, incidentally, looks georgeous). This is, after all, a character who's established goal is to NOT get angry and turn into the titular character, and I liked how Banner was constantly monitoring his pulse and teaching himself to channel his energy while on his search for a cure.

I was also pleasantly surprised by director Louis Leterrier. I've liked the Luc Besson disciple's previous work, especially the Jet Li flick Unleasehed, but Transporter 2 isn't exactly a hallmark of cinema (I still like it, though). I watched Incredible Hulk a day after taking in the flashy and hollow Wanted, and Leterrier is clearly comfortable balancing character and action moments. The first big action scene in the Brazilian cola bottling factory is an impressive example of pacing, editing, and building tension, with the Hulk emerging from shadow only as a brief silohuette from a flash grenade. It's a geeky, uber-cool moment of iconography, a payoff for the film's quiet opening passages.

Unfortunately, as tuned in to the character as the screenplay is, the plot plods along from one locale to the next without any real sense of urgency. The insinuation the entire film is General Ross (William Hurt) needs to cover up this insidious military experiment gone awry while also restarting the project in secret... which explains the small, specialist squad led by Emil Blonksy (Tim Roth) but not the tanks and helicopters that come storming onto an American university -- tanks and helicopters being difficult to explain when one wants to keep a conspiracy on the down low. There's a sweet subplot with Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) helping Bruce evade her father, but the further along the story progresses, the less clear and more obligatory things become.

I liked the mini-rivalry Hulk has with Blonksy, a warrior who yearns to combine his experience with an all-powerful body of his own, but the finale feels like a long, drawn-out sideshow. There's a moment late in the film where a crowd of people -- including the Rosses -- watch the heroic Hulk walk away, and I wasn't sure if they were happy about this or not. It's a frustrating climax that not only leaves questions unanswered (sequel!) but raises questions and reveals plot holes that otherwise would have gone cheerfully unnoticed.

What the film lacks is that extra gear that all good action movies have. While I appreciated the simplicity of the film's opening, the ending is overly simplistic, leaning on gravitas that isn't really there. The film is executed well, but at the end of the day, it's a one-note story.


Your reaction to Wanted will depend largely on how you handle the Loom of Destiny. It's a machine at the center of the Wanted universe and a big linchpin in the plot. It tells the Fraternity, the society of assassins in the story, who to kill next via irregularities in the stitching that are actually coded messages.

If you're confused, yes, it's that kind of loom. A machine that weaves yarn into cloth. This is an action movie about a millenia-old underground society of superhuman killers who restore balance to the world based on the machinations of a device that makes sweaters.

If you can buy that, you're going to love Wanted. Me, not so much.

I had mixed expectations about the film going in. The imagery left me cold, but then the reviews starting pouring in and praising director Timur Bekmambetov for his inventiveness and flair. Apparently, he was given an uncanny amount of freedom, especially for a foreign director making his English-language debut with a big budget Summer flick. And at one point during the film, I thought to myself that Bekmambetov was Michael Bay with a sense of restraint. He has a feeling for when to let a scene breathe versus when to go for the craziness. The first big action sequence specifically is full of energy and excitement, what with a confused Wesley (James McAvoy) being literally swept away at 100 mph by Fox (Angelina Jolie -- really, that's her character name) and her Dodge Viper. Jolie proceeds to lie on the car's hood so she can steer with her feet and shoot backwards at the bad guy. The sequence has a visceral quality that all great action sequences should have -- speed, momentum, a sense of danger.

And then in comes the Loom of Destiny. Which, again, is a machine that weaves yarn.

There's something so obligatory, so plain, so by-the-numbers about Wanted's storyline that keeps Bekmambetov's visual flair from succeeding. The screenplay pretends to be about Wesley's search for an identity, a search ignited by the revelation that his father was the world's best assassin, but all we get is a lackadaisical training montage highlighted by pretty CGI bullets dancing through the air in slow motion. The story then throws away all established themes and logic for the sake of plot twists that are supposed to be eye-opening, but are instead confounding and empty. Basically, the film tramples all over its first half in order to fill the second half with twists that lack sense. Wesley supposedly is following in his father's footsteps, but the film is too busy to note how he feels about this, instead giving us cryptic backstory for Fox and underwhelming lectures about the Fraternity's role in the world. At the center of it all is an air of myth and mysticism in the form of a machine that turns cotton into tablecloths.

For all the spectacular, inventive action, there's just as much that is hollow and superficial. Much is made of the bullet bending trick, especially for what it represents about Wesley's growth, but then that's that, and the plot keeps chugging along. Visually, there's something anti-climactic about watching two bullets slam into each other. Even the big finale is a letdown, involving an overly-elaborate scheme with bombs planted onto rats. I'm not sure if this strategy is supposed make Wesley clever or not, but all it basically accomplishes is to open the front door for him. Speed? Momentum? A sense of danger? No, no... we get bomber rats.

Wanted puts the fate of its characters, plot, and themes in the hands of the Loom of Destiny. The actors acquit themselves well enough, and some of the action is pretty cool, but at the end of the day, things hinge on a machine that knits. Who know who else knits? My mom.