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Drawing on the past 

Attempting to rebound from previous mistakes

Is it just me, or is anyone else hankering to go out and rent a handful of episodes from the late '70s/early '80s TV series The Incredible Hulk? Sure, every show pretty much resembled the others (Dr. Banner hits town, meets some bad dudes, turns into the Hulk to fight them, leaves town), but Bill Bixby was a smart choice to play the smart scientist, and in retrospect, it was downright comforting to have his rampaging alter ego played by an oversized actor spray-painted in green.

In this modern age, moviemakers have opted to keep Dr. Jekyll but do away with Mr. Hyde, replacing him with a CGI creation. The results were disastrous in Ang Lee's 2003 Hulk: A dull flick was made even less appealing by a green giant who looked like a video game blip most of the time and Gumby on steroids the rest of the time.

The Incredible Hulk, an attempt to save the franchise (new director, new writer, new cast), is clearly a superior follow-up, even if the computers still can't quite capture the misunderstood monster on film. The Hulk looks better here than in the '03 model, but there's still a plasticity about him that removes the behemoth -- and, consequently, our rooting interest -- from whatever action is occurring on screen. That's a shame, because Edward Norton does his part by providing Bruce Banner with the requisite sense of torn humanity, and the film is filled with imaginative asides for fans of the comic book and/or TV series (my favorite is the shout-out to the late Bixby, showing him on a TV screen in an episode from his popular sitcom The Courtship of Eddie's Father).

The Incredible Hulk is a more-than-serviceable fantasy flick, lacking in the sort of existential angst that propelled the Spider-Man trilogy and Superman Returns but filled with frenetic action that should satisfy the Marvel faithful. But on the sliding scale of recent superhero flicks, it falls a bit short. In other words, don't expect Iron Man or Batman to be green with envy.

THE HAPPENING STARTS OFF well before steadily traipsing downhill, and in that respect, it perfectly mirrors writer-director M. Night Shyamalan's career in this vein right up until this latest release. The Sixth Sense may have been a smash, but each subsequent film was less satisfying than the one which preceded it, leading all the way to his disastrous last picture, Lady In the Water. For what it's worth, The Happening at least represents a step up from that debacle.

Opening in Central Park and then combing out through the NYC streets, the first scenes show countless people suddenly become zombie-like before taking their own lives. A cop blows himself away with his handgun, and other citizens pick up his revolver and follow suit. In one of the creepiest moments, construction workers and businessmen alike hurl themselves from the tops of buildings, the soundtrack amplifying the sickening thuds as they hit the ground.

It's soon revealed that this phenomenon is spreading to all major cities throughout the northeast chamber of the country; this includes Philadelphia, where high school science teacher Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) elect to leave town before the plague hits. Or is it a plague? No one has a definitive answer. Initially, it's announced that it's a virus set loose by terrorists, but that theory is eventually discarded, and for a while, Shyamalan steadfastly refuses to give us any hints.

It's during these early passages, when we're as baffled as the characters, that the film is at its strongest. But the self-appointed master of the last-minute twist here elects to reveal the mystery somewhere around the halfway mark. It's such a threadbare revelation -- and a pretty silly one, to boot -- that the movie then ambles forward with nothing else left to say. There's an unsettling late-inning contribution by Betty Buckley as a loony old lady who has effectively shut herself off from civilization, as well as a surprisingly brutal encounter with a family of yokels who don't take kindly to strangers trespassing on their property. Beyond that, the second half of the picture basically spins its wheels, ending on a cautionary note that's then followed by an ominous coda.

As for Shyamalan's usual on-screen appearance? Following his ego-stroking role in Lady In the Water, where he played the Potential Savior of All Mankind, the only part important enough for him to essay next would have been God. Instead, Shyamalan not only shows humility but gives himself a cameo that proves to be the most clever aspect of the movie. I don't dare ruin the surprise, but if you don't figure it out while watching the flick, be sure to carefully check the cast list at the end. Unfortunately, when a movie's best bit arrives during the closing credits, we're all in trouble.

(CL film editor Matt Brunson and other area critics will discuss summer movies at 9 a.m. Tuesday, June 24, on Charlotte Talks on WFAE 90.7 FM.)

To see more photos from The Incredible Hulk and The Happening, go to www.theclogblog.com.

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