Dispensing with the origin story in the opening title sequence (Ang Lee's 2003 Hulk offered enough backstory and exposition to last a lifetime), the film starts at a gallop in Rio de Janeiro. It is here, in a picturesque maze of hillside slums, that Banner has gone into hiding, on the run from Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross (a mean, mustachioed William Hurt), the nutball U.S. Army general who wants Banner's powers for "biotech force enhancement" - that is, a new generation of super soldiers.
So Banner toils incognito at a soda bottling factory and hangs out with his dog in a rundown apartment, teaching himself Portuguese. A typed report appears onscreen, notifying audiences that it's been 158 days "without incident." Bruce Banner has been simply that: Bruce Banner. Not the green-eyed caricature of a WWF warrior, bulging with super-human muscle and rage.
Of course, he doesn't stay Bruce for long. Gen. Ross has intercepted some e-mail exchanges that lead him and his team of crack commandos to Rio. Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), a Russian-born, Royal Marines-trained officer, is the top guy, and he goes tearing after Banner on the streets, stairs, alleyways and rooftops of the Rio barrio. Finally, trapped in the bottle factory where he works, Bruce loses his cool . . .. Next thing Blonsky knows, he's facing a ferocious gargantuan.
The General hadn't prepared him for this.
And director Leterrier doesn't quite seem prepared, either. All aces with the human-scale, fugitive-in-Rio chase sequences, the director lets the special effects and motion-capture-rendered CGI get the better of him. This digitally-realized Hulk really doesn't fit into the fabric of the film, but worse, the rampaging behemoth bears not the slightest resemblance to Norton. Which makes the Beauty and the Beast scenes that come later - between the Hulk and Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), the nifty neuroscientist who is Banner's flame and Gen. Ross' daughter - seem even dopier.
And then there's the "Abomination," Tim Roth's Blonsky on mega-steroids. More Alien than ratty Reservoir Dogs guy, the towering antagonist is Godzilla to the Hulk's Kong, and the film's final act is essentially a humongo wrestling match between the two, played out on the streets of Harlem. Ripped metal, smashed cars, cracking exoskeletons and screaming citizens ensue.
Norton, Roth and Hurt are fine, interesting actors, and there are fine, interesting riffs going on here and there. Tyler, with her eyeglasses (she's smart!) and lip gloss (she's sexy!), is given only slightly more to do than your typical superhero's gal.
Don't run off before the credits start to roll, though: The Incredible Hulk ends with a jokey cameo by a certain movie star with his own newfound superhero franchise.
Alas, The Incredible Hulk is no Iron Man, and a brief appearance by a devilishly goateed Tony Stark only serves to remind us of that fact.
The Incredible Hulk **1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Louis Leterrier. With Edward Norton, William Hurt, Liv Tyler and Tim Roth. Distributed by Universal Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 54 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, carnage, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.