Story, character run off the rails - and it works

The Incredible Hulk
Studio: Marvel/Universal
Cast: Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth
Director: Louis Leterrier
WorkNameSort: Incredible Hulk, The
Our Rating: 4.00

When a green giant as tall as a two-story building is throwing a temper tantrum, subtlety takes a back seat. Rarely do the puny humans in its warpath stop to ask, 'I wonder if he was abused as a child?â?� The true reaction would probably run somewhere between the terror that comes with sudden mortality and a morbid joy in watching a godlike creature dole out its wrath in infantile fist-waving and foot-stomps.

That's always been the fun inherent in the tragic story of Dr. Bruce Banner (played sincerely by Edward Norton), a freak-accident victim who develops the world's worst case of reactive aggression. He's a superhero without public sympathy, save the depressingly sad eyes of his true love, Betty Ross (Liv Tyler). And for nearly 50 years, children worldwide have reveled in watching his uncontrollable fits.

That's also where high-minded director Ang Lee went wrong in his 2003 feature film, Hulk: He became the ultimate sympathizer on the beast's behalf and in the process gave us a two-hour guilt-trip spanking that still stings our inner child's ass five years later.

Be thankful, because Marvel Studios is here for you. The comic behemoth's film imprint is slowly gaining the full rights to several of their most cherished franchises, and the company finally has the power to control its universe. This summer alone, that's paid off with two of the most exciting and unfettered franchise launches in superhero history (both of which intersect in geek-tastic ways): this May's Iron Man and now director Louis Leterrier's thrilling take on The Incredible Hulk.

In the spirit of Hulk's unleashed nature, Leterrier plays fast and loose with Zak Penn's script, introducing Banner's arc as one of self-control. The helmer grows tired of the Zen exercises, and we're quickly propelled into a chase-happy search for a cure. ('I don't want to control it, I want to get rid of it,â?� Banner confides to Betty, his estranged sweetheart. Then what was all that self-help talk about?)

Betty is played by Liv Tyler as a genuine badass for love, fiercely devoted to her angry/pitiful man. She goes through her own development; she evolves from hating her father, the warmongering Gen. Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt, nicely underplaying a role that doesn't deserve his touch) to really hating her father.

What makes the smashfest a treat is the same asset that gives it a pedigree: Ed Norton's sharp and shockingly gaunt Bruce Banner. Much was made of Marvel's feud with Norton, but none of the drama shows up in his performance, an elegant balancing of his character's quippy and emotionally honest nature. Norton's Banner is a man whose intellect is practically visible in his walk, yet his years of solitude and hiding have carved canyons of humanity across his worn face that render him instantly relatable.

It's a testament to the long-fought-over editing that the top-notch performances are able to break through the surface, especially considering the director's breakneck pace. Leterrier, a Luc Besson protégé, approaches the Hulk's backstory the way Jackie Mason makes a long story short: There was a horrible accident, yada yada, a big boom, then the freak goes farkakteh. The set pieces dazzle ' the decimation of an upscale Virginia university, the streets of an unidentifiable big city (Roanoke, maybe?), a labyrinthine Brazil. And despite the inevitable battle between immovable objects (also see Transformers and Iron Man) and a climax that entails a father's stunning lack of concern for his daughter's safety, the moments of victory are juicy.

The Incredible Hulk isn't a work of art, but director Leterrier, unlike Lee, had the sense to recognize that it wasn't supposed to be art in the first place. His film delivers on something called 'fun.â?�