THE INCREDIBLE HULK RETURNS
**/**** Image B- Sound B Extras A+
starring Bill Bixby, Lou Ferrigno, Lee Purcell, Jack Colvin
written by Nicholas Corea
directed by Bill Bixby & Nicholas Corea
THE TRIAL OF THE INCREDIBLE HULK
*/**** Image B- Sound B Extras A+
starring Bill Bixby, Lou Ferrigno, Rex Smith, John Rhys-Davies
written by Gerald Di Pego
directed by Bill Bixby
by Walter Chaw It all comes back in a rush, the crosshairs fixing David Banner's (Bill Bixby) face, the breathless narration summarizing the whole of the creation story in ninety seconds, the shots of long-haired Lou Ferrigno, in full body-paint, embodying the rage and frustration of the flower-power generation in all its ripped-jean glory. Punked with a horse's dose of gamma radiation, mild-mannered Dr. Banner turns into a ball of flexing id that gets most wroth until running across a kitten or something and calming down. Jekyll and Hyde for the "me" generation; that a research scientist disinterested in the particulars of cashing in turns into a giant green ball of type-A is one avenue for discussion, though a better one is the fact that Banner represents in a real way the idea of hope and compassion in a time more interested in "Hulk smash"--making the moldy Marvel hero a potentially good match for the reflective sensibilities of Ang Lee. That Banner's pacifist nature is always defeated by his "anger" speaks volumes about the inevitability of the metamorphosis of hippie to yuppie, as well as the death of a dream that transformation encompasses.
The passings of Jim Henson in 1990 and of Bixby (after a life that can only be described as tragic) three years later were two coffin nails in my childhood (Star Wars episodes I & II, two more); Bixby, by then directing episodes of "Blossom" after helming a trilogy of "Hulk" TV movies, always embodied for me the image of a Reagan-era Lord Byron--Heathcliff on a technobabble moor. Dr. Banner's greatest weakness was his dedication to trusting one person per episode with his terrible secret, only to have that faith inevitably betrayed. But the cycle of trust/betrayal and, to a lesser degree, of love and abandonment, constantly repeated during the five-year run of "The Incredible Hulk" (1977-1982), speaks to an indefatigable belief in the resilience of the human spirit. (The apparent shallowness of the formula is deceptively thorny, as the longevity of the program attests.) The television series is deep into not so much the essential questions of good and evil, but the trickier question of how man can continue to trust when the main item on life's menu is "shit sandwich."
The show, camp schlock in the extreme, is the madness of existence encapsulated in the hour-long television format--rivalling, in that regard, "ER" and its chaotic slaughterhouse ethic while certainly eclipsing the Yankee'd up "Dukes of Hazzard" of contemporary series "Knight Rider", the peculiar Mormon parable of "Battlestar Galactica", and the surreal existentialism of "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century". "The Incredible Hulk" found its themes of endlessly reiterated patterns relieved only by the sensation/illusion of hope in its circular piano theme that, to this day, sends shivers down my spine.
The Incredible Hulk Returns serves dual duty as a longer time spent in Banner's cruel Sisyphusian cycle and a pilot for a proposed new series starring another Marvel muscle-horse, The Mighty Thor (frankly hilarious Eric Allan Kramer, who, oddly enough, played a character named "Hulk" in High School High). With Banner on the verge of curing himself (again) of his freakism, this time with a machine called "The Transponder," a former student (Steve Levitt) interrupts, sporting Thor's hammer and a tall tale about freeing the Norse himbo and controlling him with the thunder mallet. It's been two years series' time (six years real time) since Banner has hulked-out, and his latest big-haired lady love (Lee Purcell) has a fighting chance with the new, improved, responsible Banner--ready at last to stop running from his problems... At least for an extra thirty-five minutes.
Thor's lines and delivery are genuinely comic ("By Odin, I can try" his boisterous response to, "Thor, can you drive?"), even when the film does little more than remind of what it was that made the original series haunting for a generation of kids that didn't know what hit them. (Taking one of the more erratically written Marvel heroes in The Hulk and transforming it into a parable of the modern man is the kind of accident of popular culture that makes popular culture--and its Frankenstein offspring Television--so difficult to discount offhand.) The Incredible Hulk Returns isn't one of the more impressive "Hulk" episodes, as it were (the best is probably the two-hour second-season premiere "Married," which holds a similar heft in a relative sense to Bond's On Her Majesty's Secret Service), a TV-movie with about five minutes of substance and ninety of the standard corporate villain, episodic melodrama. Yet it retains an appeal as a picture that, for all its myriad and obvious faults, retains an absolute seriousness in the value of the television series that spawned it--having in common, in that sense, a great deal with its hero.
The Trial of the Incredible Hulk is a clunkier beast by far, exhibiting an astonishing lack of grace in its scripting and the performances of Rex Smith (as Daredevil, Matt Murdock) and its secondary cast of Z-list regulars. An opening jewel heist masterminded by the Kingpin Wilson Fisk (John Rhys-Davies), in particular, reeks of lousy plotting and bad '80s scoring, its nadir occurring when a clerk and her customer conduct business as usual with a band of masked marauders screaming bloody murder around them. The banter in the picture courtesy professional hack Gerald Di Pego is cringe-worthy stuff ("Someday you'll do something good for the world...you'll die!"), as are the action scenes, which rely just too much on people getting thrown through and into things.
Like The Incredible Hulk Returns, a moussed-up woman (Marta DuBois this time around) is made a hostage/plot point and, again like Return, the Hulk gets to "team-up" with another vaguely lame cast-off from the Marvel-verse. A speech given by DuBois on the sanctity of her status as a teacher reminds that, at times, "The Incredible Hulk" was fairly obviously the chief inspiration for "Highway to Heaven". As always, Bixby anchors the piece with a committed, oversold intensity (he would probably have fit in pretty comfortably with any of a number of Bochco casts), while Ferrigno gifts his beast with a surprising level of humanity. His auto-comparison of his Hulk to Karloff's Frankenstein is actually pretty close to the mark.
Anchor Bay presents the two films on DVD in a slip-covered gatefold keepcase with some fairly hysterical copy ("Can The Hulk end the rampage of this mead-crazed barbarian?") and composited art that looks as bad as the new credits overlaid in the movies proper. The fullscreen presentations look exactly like what they are, television-quality images with minor edge-enhancement now and again and murky shadow detail. Similarly, the 2.0 mono audio is nothing to write home about, but neither is it distractingly bad. Dialogue is clear--there's nothing resembling atmospheric effects in either movie. The real attraction of the 2-disc set, besides the nostalgic value of such a thing, are the consistently brilliant extras offered by Anchor Bay.
Beginning with Jay Marks's eight-page insert covering plots and a brief popular analysis, the first disc features a pair of short documentaries: The Marvelous World of Stan Lee and Muscling In On Movies. The former is an exhaustive interview with J. Jonah Jameson-haired Marvel guru Lee, if of interest mainly only to comic-book aficionados; the latter is a touching interview with Ferrigno about his overcoming his hearing loss and his relationship with the late Bixby. Cast & Crew biographies are typically comprehensive Anchor Bay fare: Authored by Richard Becker & Rand Vossler, the pieces on Bixby and Ferrigno are required reading. A rare thing indeed to be said of this feature and something that can't be said, sadly, for a Posters & Stills gallery, superfluous here as anywhere.
The second disc features Stand Tall, an 84-minute documentary by Mark Nalley that covers Ferrigno's "comeback" in the "Masters Olympia" nineteen years after his retirement from competition. Arguably, the picture is the best film on the topic since George Butler's Pumping Iron and, similar to that film, it features appearances by superstars of the sport, including an interview with Arnold Schwarzenegger that is almost fawning in its admiration. At 6'5" and three-hundred-plus pounds (Ferrigno played Canadian League football back in the day before quitting when he broke someone's legs), the man is a genuine modern grotesque in the best sense of the word. The picture is sentimental and biased, no question, but like the Hulk series that made him famous, Ferrigno possesses an earnestness that is winning and, dare I say it, inspirational. Poster & Still gallery and Talent Bios are repeated from the first disc, with a DVD-ROM option housing the original screenplay of The Trial of the Incredible Hulk in .PDF format rounding out the presentation.
THE DEATH OF THE INCREDIBLE HULK
**/**** Image C Sound B-
starring Bill Bixby, Lou Ferrigno, Elizabeth Gracen, Andreas Katsulas
written by Gerald DiPego
directed by Bill Bixby
"THE INCREDIBLE HULK"
**/**** Image B- Sound B Extras B-
"The Return of the Beast, Part 1," "The Return of the Beast, Part 2," "Raw Power," "Helping Hands, Iron Fist"
by Bill Chambers Also making timely DVD debuts are the trilogy-capping telefilm The Death of the Incredible Hulk, the animated jambalaya "The Incredible Hulk", and "The Incredible Hulk: Original Television Series Premiere". That last disc wasn't available to us in time for this review, but it's okay: Safe to say we're pretty hulked-out.
Strangely affecting despite its innumerable shortcomings, 1990's The Death of the Incredible Hulk marked the end of the live-action "Hulk"'s thirteen-year TV legacy, but contrary to the finality of its title, Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno had every intention of resurrecting their beloved alter egos in future telefilms; it was cancer that finally killed The Hulk when it claimed Bixby's life in 1993. Such lends funereal credence to The Death of the Incredible Hulk, whose ultimate scene, which made me cry at the age of 15, now functions as a bizarrely poignant coda to Bixby's career--he got to bid his signature role, and thus his core audience, a proper farewell. Directed by Bixby and written by Gerald Di Pego (whose subsequent screenplays for Phenomenon and Instinct have their seeds in the Hulk politic), the picture is by and large a convoluted corporate-espionage intrigue involving Eastern European spies from the Boris & Natasha school, but it's not without resonances; when Banner watches footage of his alter ego for the first time, it has the full, tragic weight of the show's history behind it. And as a showcase for Bixby's singular, compassionate presence, The Death of the Incredible Hulk is, well, a marvel--Banner tends to be a character too guileless for his own good, and in Bixby's hands this was a very human flaw, not some pre-assigned trait carried out disingenuously. (By all accounts, Bixby was a saint off-screen.) Bixby engenders so much good will that you can't grouse about the thick layers of cheese with any conviction. Stemming from a show that borrowed the template of "The Fugitive", it's interesting to note that The Death of the Incredible Hulk features Andreas Katsulas as its lead baddie--Katsulas, of course, went on to play the one-armed man in the big-screen adaptation The Fugitive.
At that, there's officially nothing left to say on the subject of this MOW, except that it looks dusty in its fullscreen (1.33:1) DVD presentation--the sharp credits and fuzzy everything-else are characteristic of the film-to-tape TV transfers of the era, though it's watchable and the 2.0 mono soundtrack is surprisingly crisp. Trailers for Daredevil, the Planet of the Apes remake, X-Men, and X2 round out the Fox platter.
Adorned with cover art likely to confuse buyers for its similarity to that of The Death of the Incredible Hulk's, the latest in Buena Vista's line of Marvel titles (a line that gets longer every time there's a Marvel theatrical release), "The Incredible Hulk", contains four origin-themed episodes from the 1996 after-school cartoon. Goodness, was it poorly conceived: from the Adam West vocal stylings of Neal McDonough--lending his pipes to Bruce Banner--to the inclusion of Hulk's lamest-named nemesis The Leader (basically a green Vincent Price), there's little here to engage post-pubescents except on a purely ironic level. There are moments--I'm thinking of the giant scorpion that wags his tongue like a puppy--that make The Death of the Incredible Hulk look like Shakespeare, and the updated character designs turn the already-generic-enough Bruce, Banner's love interest Betty Ross, teen adrenaline junkie Rick Jones, and even Tony "Iron Man" Stark into storyboard thumbnails. Hulk himself (voiced by Ferrigno) is drawn in the post-Jack Kirby style; Marvel/Buena Vista should have instead given us four episodes of the charming 1966 show that literally brought Kirby's original panels to life, the three-part pilot of which is introduced here by Stan Lee. (Not that anyone would accuse this premiere of being well-written, either.) "Stan Lee's Soapbox" (10 mins.), just that, plus an "exclusive" 30-second (!) interview with writer Peter David and an "Inside the Hulk" trivia track finish off the disc. Quality for the full-frame video is average across the board, and the Dolby Surround audio (for the 1996 show only) is cut-and-dry. Originally published: June 18, 2003.