Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1989)

''Was that you, George?''Short and sweet version:

The defining, stand out scene of this whole movie (the one we all get our pictures from) turns out to be a dream sequence.

Long and painful version:

Remember when I called The Incredible Hulk Returns “a fine capstone” to the series? Well, that was the truth. It’s unfortunate no one at NBC realized this in time. Not very surprising, though. Happens everywhere. A decent little picture miraculously becomes popular (popular enough to snatch the fifth highest rating of any program aired in the same week) only to be sullied by a lackluster, assembly-line sequel.

Hot off the success of Returns, NBC rushed to make a deal with Marvel for future Incredible Hulk outings. And, wouldn’t you know it, less than a year later Trial of the Incredible Hulk roared and flexed its way to prime time. And as the talking head said on the news, right before the aliens blew up all those cities, “Indeed, God help us all.”

Well…okay. So it’s not that bad. Things could be worse. But saying “things could be worse” doesn’t make that any better. Go back in time and try saying that to a Parisian during the Nazi occupation. Go ahead, try it. You’ll see something funny. Still…there’s definitely something missing from Trial. You can feel it from the start. For one thing, the obligatory Hulk title sequence is nowhere to be found. Instead, Dr. David Banner’s choppy voice over brings us up to speed. Scientist. Gamma radiation. Monster. Yadda, yadda, yadda…

We find Dr. Banner (still played by Bill Bixby) hole-diggin’ in some anonymous rural landscape. When one of his co-diggers decides to get smart and push him around, Banner takes the moral high road and decides running away is his best bet. Right away we see the responsible, upstanding Banner of Returns is nowhere to be found here, and no reference is made to whatever might’ve happened in the Time Between to drive Banner this far back underground.* Unfortunate, considering whatever it was would’ve probably be much more entertaining than what follows.

[*Of course, this assumes that Returns and Trial take place sequentially…and in the same fictional universe. No one on the production end of things seemed to care enough about this issue to even bring it up. As a result, Trial could just as easily have taken place during the show’s original Five-Year Mission…save Bixby’s choice to sport a shaggy beard for the first two-thirds of this film.]

Knapsack in hand, Our bearded Hero heads for The City…though, by now, you’d think Banner would be smart enough to know this is a Bad Idea from the start. We certainly do. Sure enough, within ten minutes Our Hero runs across two thieves assaulting a woman named Ellie Mendez (Marta DuBois) on The Subway. Rough housing ensues and Banner’s alter ego (still Lou Ferrigno) emerges to bust some heads.

Now, there’s nothing really wrong with Bixby’s choice to sport a beard in this outing. Banner’s two-dimensional other self has been known to change his appearance while on the lamb. But you’d think someone (in make-up, props, set-design, anywhere) could’ve run out, ganked some more green-tinted yak hair, and given Ferrigno a beard too. As is, this glaring continuity problem unwilling sabotages the emotional crux of this entire Hulk thang. It’s hard to enjoy the high point of a film with a goof like that staring you right in the face. We nerds are a fastidious bunch, and our eyes (sheltered behind their shields of glass) are sharp as hawks. And we really hate it when our left brain interrupts our right brain’s vicarious thrills with stupid questions like, “Hey, where the hell’s the Hulk’s beard?”

This is one of the least talked-about issues of Trial, one that I think is central to the final taste the film leaves in your mouth. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. There’s more plot ahead. After sending the punks packing, the Hulk (with his usual subtlety) makes his escape through a crowded station, cops in pursuit. Johnny Law finds a half naked, shivering Banner and somehow* Our Hero winds up behind bars, accused of attacking the very woman he (and his better half) tried to save.

[*We later learn that police in The City are helplessly corrupt, along with most of the local politicians (duh). Still, you’d think someone might be interested in all those witness testimonies about the big green dude who bore no resemblance whatsoever to the skinny white man the cops picked up. Or maybe the FBI. Unless you’re telling me the FBI is ignoring all the blatantly and obviously Organized Crime in The City. Or that the connection between Banner and the Hulk is not only public knowledge, but well-known and appreciated by The City’s cops.]

Who would possibly defend the Incredible Hulk? Why…Matt Murdock (Rex Smith) of course. Foolish humans.

A week ago, I saw two men kissing in a park. It was the gayest  thing I've ever seen. Until now.And right here, ladies, we have the Trial‘s other Defining Problem: Daredevil. At least Thor had the decency to have his bar fight and leave so we could all watch Banner Hulk-out and kick ass. Not so here. My key point remains: if you’re gonna do a Pilot, make a fucking pilot. This left-handed stuff just doesn’t work. But have no fear, Dr. Banner. Matt Murdock is on the case…especially after dark, when Matt sheds his three-piece for a black leotard and becomes the vigilante known as Daredevil, the Man Without Fear…or a Shred of Self-Respect.

Matt quickly deduces that Ellie Mendez’s accusation is obviously the work of his arch nemesis, the Kingpin (John Rhys-Davies!). Masquerading as a garden-variety rich person named Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin uses his wealth and power to command a vast criminal network slowly eating away at The City’s moral heart. Or something. Daredevil being a Marvel Comics character, you don’t have to be a genius to figure out who killed Matt Murdock’s father, providing Our other Hero with a Defining Element of Tragedy. One of them, anyway…Daredevil, breaking the Spider-Man mold, has two. The other being a childhood misadventure with an old man, a street, and a truck illegally transporting toxic waste through The City. Young Matt, rescuing the old man from a hit-n’-run, wound up dosed with “those mysterious rays of which we know so little…” loosing his sight in the process. Fortunately the accident also made his other senses extraordinarily sensitive, giving him a kind of second sight, which the makers of Trail chose to represent with a cheep video filter.

So, while Banner sweats in prison, we follow Daredevil as he learns those two men in the subway were in fact fleeing one of Kingpin’s diamond heists. Peeked at his arch-rival’s interest, the Kingpin quickly kidnaps Ellie Mendez, using her as bait to lure Daredevil in and slaughter him…on video*. Fisk plans to then showcase “the destruction of my enemy” to “the other heads of Crime,” convincing them to turn over control of their vast organizations…somehow.

[*Much like the Architect of the Matrix, the Kingpin has a healthy TV fetish. And, like any villain, he wears only square sunglasses.]

Will Daredevil save Banner from the stand? Will the Hulk save Daredevil from the Kingpin? Will anyone save the poor Latina babe (and her scary, ’80s hair) whose plight started all of this? And how come a two-hour made for TV movie can last this long?

Last question first: These two hours are filled to bursting with all the plot, setting, and exposition you can stomach…and more. Too bad most of this stuff isn’t terribly interesting, considering how little it has to do with our titular character. The two main character arcs of the piece are badly cobbled together, with the Hulk getting such a short shift he doesn’t even appear during the climactic battle. Daredevil’s prominence is almost insulting on one level. I…well, didn’t exactly pay for this movie…but if I had, I would’ve paid for a Hulk movie, damnit. If the NBC’s bean counters (I’m under no illusions about writer Gerald Di Pego’s degree of script control) didn’t trust Daredevil enough to give him two hours and no competition, well…fuck Daredevil, then. Not like you don’t have the Hulk, for God’s sake.

So, obviously, Trial’s another victim of bureaucratic pussyfooting. But chin up, campers, there’s plenty more wrong with this picture. For one thing, there’s no real evidence connecting the central axis of the plot (the two robbers menacing Mendez on the subway) to the Kingpin. We’re told he wants to keep these thugs rotting in prison, so the obvious question is…why? With his god-like control over The City (actually Vancouver, B.C., naturally filling in for New York) couldn’t the Kingpin just have them killed and save himself a whole bunch of superhero-involved hassle? In a sequence that harks back to the Hulk series, only random chance saves Banner from meeting a similar fate.*

[*Of course, no further attempts on his life are made.]

Then there’s this whole thing with the Kingpin forming a “network” with other crime lords….his competitors, in other words. Again, why? The Kingpin I know would be much more interested in killing his rivals off as an ever-shrinking number of them sweat, wondering when the ax would fall. Or maybe sic them all on each other through some Machiavellian scheme…or, better yet, send the idiots after Daredevil. I’m sure they’d hop to it once the Kingpin showed them all the evidence he’s amassed of Daredevil’s WMD program.

I’m just rattling these plots off. Unfortunately every one of them would require little things like a budget, more screen time, and much more talent on either side of the camera. A problem showcased by Bill Bixby’s miniscule screen time during the first two-thirds. Without a doubt, Bixby is the most professional actor in the house. Yet even he (like everyone else) labors under the ludicrous dialogue he’s forced to spout. Stomp Tokyo‘s favorite (“I’m a good doctor. I thought I’d lost it, but I haven’t. I can fix anything they broke in you…except your spirit.”) is just the tip of this saccharine iceberg. You might like to know that Mr. Di Pego also banged out the 1996 John Travolta vehicle, Phenomenon. That’s what we’re dealing with here. And nothing stirs up my Banner-ambivalence like idiotic dialogue. At least John Rhys-Davies seems to be enjoying himself. By playing Kingpin completely straight (no matter how illogical his plans) Rhys-Davies manages to escape with his limbs intact. But do you think he put this on his Lord of the Rings resume? No.

The sad thing is…I kinda dug Rex Smith. As Daredevil, he’s sorely lacking.* As Matt Murdock, he’s…competent. But (again, like everyone else) his Murdock comes across as a refugee from a soap opera. Not to mention all the crucial elements of Daredevil’s character (and, by extension, his story’s distinct world) that get left on the cutting room floor. Vancouver’s a poor Hell’s Kitchen. Murdock’s struggling legal practice becomes a posh corporate office right next door to the Kingpin’s tower. And Foggy Nelson is replaced by a woman named Christa and a Token Black Dude. Sweet Jesus.

[*My friend Rachel (upon examining the box art): “So, is this quife supposed to be Daredevil?”]

I was largely ambivalent towards Trial of the Incredible Hulk as I sat watching the credits role. A few hours of serious thought really helped me understand why. In the final tally, this movie is just a mess. It drifts from melodrama to over-the-top superhero action without a hint of care. Bogged down with exposition, it grindsĀ  to a halt every time another plot point begs for attention. And you can’t help but feel sorry for the poor sods saddled with this dialogue.

You are no match for the green pecs of JusticeMostly, I feel sorry for the Hulk. Because there’s nothing technically wrong with this movie (in the most literal sense). Its rampant story problems wear the scars of a rushed, haphazard production…or at least pre-production. And if you think I’m ignoring Bill Bixby’s contribution as a director…well, you’re right. But it’s not like he gives me much to go on. While his dialogue is trite and heavy-handed, his camera is lackluster and invisible. Very much the point-‘n-shoot style. Not something to write home about.

Which pretty sums up Trial of the Incredible Hulk…a bit of masochistic fun for the whole family. Especially if you hate your family. And if your family hates superhero movies. If you want to reinforce their prejudice, look no further than this bit of trash from second decade of the American superhero movie’s Golden Age, when TV budgets shrank, big names began to jump ship, and Tim Burton proved to everyone Big Budget, summer blockbusters were the only way to go with this material.


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