Confession: I really, really loved the old Incredible Hulk TV show starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno. So, Al's submission of The Trial of the Incredible Hulk for this round of our little project had me cautiously optimistic. As it turns out, my optimism was justified.
The Trial of the Incredible Hulk was one of a couple attempts that I know of to start up a spinoff show from the Hulk TV series centered around another Marvel superhero. The first was The Incredible Hulk Returns, which added Thor in an attempt to create a show based around him. This one...well, if you know comics, it's pretty obvious who this one involves. Trial?
She-Hulk? No. Okay, so, maybe not quite as obvious as I thought.
Nope, it's Daredevil, he who recently got his own show on Netflix, rendering this little review pretty timely. Daredevil, for the unfamiliar, is a blind crimefighter with enhanced senses akin to a particularly powerful sonar or radar, who also happens to be a defense attorney named Matt Murdock. He's actually one of the more interesting characters in comics, to me--I guess I've always kind of liked the crusading defense attorney shows...and video games. Daredevil / Phoenix Wright crossover, anyone?
...that needs to exist. Needs to.
Anyway, here's the general idea. David Banner (not Bruce, as in the comics, though as I recall he's actually called David Bruce Banner to keep the name in there...comics used Robert Bruce Banner, as I recall?) is a homeless drifter who used to be a scientist before an experiment with gamma radiation gave him a little anger management problem--now, whenever he gets too angry or stressed, he converts into a lumbering green monster with superhuman strength, the Hulk. During the TV show, he wandered from town to town, trying to avoid trouble, but always ending up in the midst of it despite his best efforts, just too good-natured to stay out of things when innocent people were in danger. It was kind of a superhero version of The Fugitive--a man who for his own good needs to leave well enough alone, but can't, because he's too good a man to do it. Between his brains and his alter ego's massive amount of brawn, he'd stop injustice and help the innocent, but always had to move on to avoid the monster within making a mess of things.
The Trial of the Incredible Hulk uses that same formula to an extent: After a brief intro, David finds a place in a city, and tries to lay low and just find a job to support himself. This city, though, is filled with corruption, and he gets involved when a couple thieves escaping the scene of a diamond heist decide to harass a woman on a train. Though David tries to avoid involving himself, he finally can't help it, and stands up to the thieves--whereupon they beat him up, whereupon the Hulk beats them up.
Unfortunately, in a city this corrupt, the truth is twisted. Threatened, the woman claims David was attacking her, and he's arrested and charged. Enter Matt Murdock, defense attorney, who thinks that the men David described in his statement (which didn't, of course, mention becoming a big green guy) sound like those he knows work for a Wilson Fisk--who he believes is in control of a criminal organization. Matt's goal is taking Fisk down, and he thinks David is his ticket to doing it.
From there, the film interweaves David and Matt's stories, at first separating them somewhat (with David in jail awaiting trial, and Matt investigating), but later bringing them together more solidly. It plays out like a superhero film mixed with a Law and Order episode, to an extent--Matt interviews the witness, tries to convince David to talk, and as his alter-ego Daredevil, interrogates street toughs and tries to find the truth.
You'll might perceive that a lot of this film focuses on Matt/Daredevil, and you'd be right about that. It's pretty clear watching this that the focus is on trying to create a new show, and the new main character eats up a lot of the spotlight time. I didn't feel it was a major problem, because the story is still quite good, but at the same time, it feels a little bad to see Bill and Lou relegated to side characters in a film that still bears the name of their show. That said...it's not like they just show up, intro the case, and then sit in prison the entire movie. They get pretty involved, and their inclusion feels valid--not just a cheap trick to try to get someone to watch a new show.
So...this is a good film. No qualifiers, full stop. This is a good film. What you have here is a great cast putting on a neat take on some of Marvel's characters--not quite keeping to the comics, but keeping close enough and doing well any time they divert anyway. Much like the TV show, this film just feels good--it carries on the show's themes very well, and sets up interesting situations for its new characters.
The acting is strong, with Bill Bixby still being the standout. I've always loved his David Banner, and this is no exception. He captures the troubled mind of a man who knows that he could at any moment become a powerful monster, and who can never be sure just what that monster will do. He shows the struggle between his urge to just be safe and live a quiet life, and his inability to stand aside while people suffer. And above all, he just seems like a good and gentle man, which provides a great contrast with what lurks within. Lou Ferrigno's Hulk, though honestly underused in the film to some extent, is always great to see too. Let's be honest here: how many people can you think of who could be painted green and go around dressed in ripped pants and honestly look intimidating as heck? Lou pulls that off, and does a great job bringing out the Hulk's bestial, instinctive sort of movement and fighting style. He doesn't move like he's just a strong man--he moves like an angry animal. It's not an easy portrayal. I always particularly love his slow "calming down" scenes, just before he transforms back. He really does those with a lot of subtle changes in emotion, and it's nice.
The new cast members are a lot of fun, as well. Rex Smith, our Matt Murdock / Daredevil, handily portrays a defense attorney on a mission, and handles both sides of the character quite well. He has to display quite a range of emotions here, with both his civilian and superhero identies having some real highs and lows in the tale, and he plays off of Bixby's David Banner nicely--the two taking turns giving each other some inspiration. I also have to say that I liked his portrayal of blindness in general. It's hard to put my finger on why--it just felt more legitimate than other performances I've seen. He never seems to forget that element of his character, which couldn't have been easy. The only critique I think I have on him is that sometimes he speaks in almost too stereotypically superheroic a manner. His voice just kind of takes on that tone--you know, the "fear not, citizen!" sort of tone, and takes you just a bit out of things. I think that would've been worked out during a series, though, and it's pretty minor.
Daredevil's supporting cast members don't get a lot of screen time, but seem interesting enough--he's got a partner and assistant at his law office who both seem like they'd be fun characters, and a good cop who enlists his help to fight corruption (sort of his Commissioner Gordon). The one who does get a lot of screen time is his villain, Wilson Fisk, played by John Rhys-Davies, which is completely and utterly awesome. Look, he may not quite look the part of the comic villain, but he has amazing screen presence, such a cool voice, and he is gloriously evil here. "The Mendez woman...is she still alive?" "Yes, sir." "Why?" He's not subtle, but somehow he avoids being too cartoony. He speaks slowly, rarely raises his voice, and seems utterly in control and totally confident--a powerful and dangerous man convinced of his victory, and quite a control freak and micromanager. I also liked his relationship with his second-in-command, who has more of a conscience but who, for whatever reason, is still valued by Fisk. I'm sure that would've been developed more in the show, but even what is in this film works well. There's some of the not-so-subtle warnings to avoid failure, but...there's also kind of a genial relationship, with Fisk recognizing the value of his employee and praising him. Very interesting.
The effects are good for the time--obviously they look somewhat dated now in certain ways, but there's a lot of good work here. The Hulk is great--like with the TV show, strategic slow motion is used to make his movements seem more weighty, and of course there's a few nice strength stunts thrown in. The green skin looks nice, too--of course, it had better by the time this movie was made! They had plenty of practice by then! Still--I've seen a lot of films fail miserably at convincingly painting someone's skin an unusual color, and it always surprises me how good the Hulk looks. Daredevil gets some fun effects too, including a decent bit of building-to-building travel with his grapple gadget.
The fighting is...okay. This is one area a Daredevil show would've needed a bit of work on, though to be fair, it's pretty acceptable. These aren't amazingly choreographed modern fight scenes, but they're a far cry from the old fakey chops and double axe handle blows of yore (Star Trek, I love you to death, but I'm looking at you!). The biggest complaints I have are that there's some use of the "make sure to attack him one at a time, it wouldn't be fair otherwise" kind of thing, and a couple points where it's not quite fully clear what hit took a bad guy out (one guy in particular during the ending gets kicked a couple times, then Daredevil raises his leg like he's going to knee him in the face, but it's really slow and clearly doesn't impact at all...and the guy collapses. So...was that supposed to hit, or was Daredevil stopping when he noted the guy was already out?). It's hardly bad, though. Hulk's fight scenes, meanwhile, are true to the TV series--guys try to do any damage whatsoever, only succeed in annoying the huge green guy, and he tosses them around or smacks them into next Thursday. I actually really love how some of it goes--there's a few spots where it looks like Hulk is putting next to no effort into hitting a guy, like just kind of gently shoving him away, and the guy still goes flying. It sells the massive power of the Hulk quite well. Overall, neither fight scene type is up to par with the modern superhero films, but they more than demonstrate the prowess of the characters, and they work well.
I do have to mention the Daredevil costume, which is...fine, if a little uninteresting. It looks like a reasonable street vigilante outfit--all black is pretty sensible, if not particularly interesting to look at--and does seem a little armored or at least padded, which is a nice touch. What bothered me was the way the little patch of cloth over his eyes looked. It seemed like it was just kind of thrown on there and oftentimes made it look like he was just wearing a hoodie that was too big or something. Maybe going more face-fitting like the comic costume might have been better. I like the cool little club gadget he has, though, with the ankle sheathe for it. That was neat.
One other major item bears mentioning. I touched on this a bit, but as the film goes on, it does become pretty clear that Daredevil is the real star of the film, with Hulk/Banner being secondary roles. Significant secondary roles, but secondary. The Hulk only shows up a few times (admittedly, as I recall he wasn't exactly bursting onto the screen in every other scene in the TV show, either), one of which is a dream sequence (the so-called "Trial" of the Incredible Hulk is rather...underrepresented in this film), and he doesn't factor into the film's ending sequence at all, leaving that to Daredevil and plain old David Banner. Admittedly, it's kind of cool to see David not have to go Hulk to get through a dangerous situation, but still, this is a Hulk movie, allegedly. That said...the few times the Hulk does appear are cool, and he's still very significant to the story.
I won't go into it too much more, other than to note a few minor oddities: Why does Hulk not have a beard when David Banner does early in the film? Why does Kingpin wear sunglasses all the dang time (those look pretty dumb, honestly)? What is with Fisk's weird jet-car-boat thing? And why--and I could be wrong about this, but I can't recall it--why does this film never use the "You wouldn't like me when I'm angry" bit?
Minor quibbles aside...this is a really, really fun film. You get a great Banner/Hulk portrayal, a very nice Daredevil portrayal that I think could've gone somewhere if they'd done a full series, and a surprisingly intricate plot that feels complete but still sets the scene well for a later show if it had been picked up. Most definitely not terrible--I loved it.
And that piano theme...goodness. Felt great hearing that again.
(Also notable: This film is the first cameo appearance by Stan Lee!)