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Edward Norton Pumps It Up: Who needs steroids when there's gamma radiation? 

all this just for a free blood pressure test?Edward Norton finally gets to play a Hollywood hunk, albeit a large green one. The actor's usual

all this just for a free blood pressure test?Edward Norton finally gets to play a Hollywood hunk, albeit a large green one. The actor's usual cool demeanor gets ripped in this film as fast as his muscles do, morphing from the research scientist Bruce Banner into Marvel Comics' super-conflicted-hero character, The Incredible Hulk. Not to be confused with director Ang Lee's 2003 take on the comic book character, this rendition is not a sequel; it's an entirely new version of the story. In what quickly evolves into a fast-paced paced political thriller, the first half of which bears resemblance to The Bourne Ultimatum, Norton's acting undergoes its own transformation. Not that he'll be an Oscar contender for this roll, but as Banner the actor's intelligence is infused with as much passion, wonder and determination as a film about a super hero will allow. While reinventing the Hulk, though, he's just kick-ass strong.

Following a secret US military science project gone awry in the nation's capitol, the action jumps to Brazil where Banner's earnest character draws us into what appears to be the life of an adventurous, backpack toting post-grad student. He hides out in a color-faded hovel with his loyal dog, while learning Portuguese, meditating for anger control, and working among the natives in a bottling company. I found this part of the film much more interesting-particularly visually-than I had expected. Like Jason Bourne, Banner is a fugitive trying to avoid the US government's radar, and eventually he's forced into a chase scene on foot, only instead of Bourne's Tangiers, we follow our man breathlessly as he races through a ramshackle barrio of Rio de Janeiro.

While Banner remains on the run, director Louis Leterrier (Transporter franchise) provides lushly filmed scenes elsewhere in Latin America, too, including Guatemala, and Chiapas, Mexico. These serenely beautiful locations, in marketplaces and on tropically wooded hillsides, contrast the hubbub back in DC created by General "Thunderbolt" Ross (a distinguished looking but nefarious William Hurt), in his quest for ever more powerful weapons. Ross desperately wants the biological code to the super-human strength that can only be found in Banner's body. Ross has indeed created a monster.

Liv Tyler, employing her dewy eyes and "pouty" lips to great effect, plays Dr. Betty Ross, a research scientist and professor in her own right, as well as the General's daughter. As Bruce's love interest, Betty pleads for mercy with her cold-hearted father while backing her man all the way. But where is the considerable brainpower we assume she possesses? Her character remains disappointingly shallow-that of a mere helpmate. At one point, in a nod to King Kong, the huge Hulk rescues Betty and carries her relatively tiny, limp body into a protective cave, reinforcing her helpless nature. I would just love to see Betty get pissed off enough to actually make a strategically helpful move.

Likewise, Tim Roth as the General's "Mini-Me," Emil Blonsky, seems a little anemic in this movie, except when infused with his own dose of extra-strength muscle building serum. The evil that he so convincingly spewed forth as a maniacal psychopath, in his memorable role as Archibald Cunningham (1995's Rob Roy), is barely touched upon here. I longed for that seething anger I know he's capable of generating in an audience.

Nevertheless, the film succeeds in several ways, including assurance of future roles for its characters. In a teaser at the end, an appearance by Iron Man's Tony Stark himself (Robert Downey Jr.) confirms what we already suspect: that these brawny superheroes will soon be taking over the world.

The Incredible Hulk  ★★★✩
Starring: Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, William Hurt and Tim Roth.
Directed by Louis Leterrier. Rated PG-13.

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