The Death Of The Incredible Hulk
US (1990) Dir. Bill Bixby
The final film in the TV movie trilogy featuring the resurrected angry green giant – following The Incredible Hulk Returns and The Trial Of The Incredible Hulk – achieves that rare feat of actually delivering exactly what it says in the title. Of course this is also a massive spoiler so keeping the audience occupied for 90 minutes when they know how the film is going to end requires some masterful storytelling.
Set some time after the events of Trial, David Banner (Bill Bixby) is posing as David Bellamy (no relation to the legendary British botanist), a mentally challenged janitor working at a scientific research facility where a Dr. Ronald Pratt (Philip Sterling) is studying the effects of Gamma radiation. At nights, Banner sneaks back into the lab and uses Dr. Pratt’s work to find a cure for his Hulk problem, making corrections along the way which Pratt notices.
Eventually Pratt catches Banner in the act, forcing him to reveal his true identity, which Pratt recognises and agrees with his scientist wife Amy (Barbara Tarbuck) to help with the research. Meanwhile a Russian spy named Jasmin (Elizabeth Gracen) is ready to quit when her boss Kasha (Andreas Katsulas) blackmails her into stealing Pratt’s experiment files with the life of Jasmin’s sister Bella (Anna Katarina) in the balance.
Despite scriptwriter Gerald Di Pego’s best efforts this story is Hulk 101 in terms of original plotting, and while the addition of a Russian spy may seem farfetched one ought to remember some of the more incredulous ideas which have appeared in previous hulk adventures. Lest we forget that Returns saw the addition of Thor to the proceedings while Trial saw Banner team up with Daredevil.
Originally the idea was for this film to follow suit in having a fellow Marvel superhero fighting alongside the Hulk, this time it was to be Iron Man. Bearing in mind the low budget these films were made for, perhaps it was for the best that the idea was dropped, as a 1990 version of Iron Man sounds extremely painful although one does wonder how bad it would have been.
Having Jasmin be a Russian spy does feel incredibly lazy in lieu of the then ongoing Cold War which came to an end a year after this film was made, especially as she doesn’t even have a Russian accent! Jasmin comes into Banner’s life when she breaks into the facility just as Dr. Pratt is working on Banner and witnesses his transformation into the Hulk.
Once again Banner does a lousy job of keeping his accidental dual identity a secret, this being the first of three changes which occur in front of Jasmin. As a separate group of Eastern European terrorists storm the lab and kidnapping Dr. Pratt and Amy, Jasmin is double crossed by her ex-comrades but is saved by Banner and they fall in love, teaming up to use Jasmin’s big book of tricks to track down the kidnapped scientists.
While he didn’t look it Bill Bixby was 56 when this film was made and even though the older man and younger woman dichotomy is as old as the hills, it still comes across as a tacky if congruent plot device to fuel the emotional denouement. The again Bixby did direct and co-produce this film so he maybe he wanted to indulge himself by getting to smooch with a hot woman half his age!
Bill Bixby was a great actor and one of the key reasons the Incredible Hulk TV series was a success. His pitch perfect essaying of a man tormented by his inner ogre made Banner a unique sympathy figure in that he could have abused it to follow the superhero template but instead treats it as a curse.
At the risk of sounding harsh, Bixby as a director didn’t feel like the right fit for the Hulk, despite his numerous directing credits which spanned many years both before and after the series. I can’t judge his other works – at least not from memory of the ones I may have seen – but for someone who had been an actor for almost four decades and with the experience he had, the direction here is uninspired beset with pacing issues which aren’t helped but the choppy editing.
Lou Ferrigno was still a mass of humanity here (he’s since dropped weight and lost a lot of bulk) while his make-up was far scarier than in the previous films. However one trademark facet of the Hulk which Bixby eschewed here was the use of slow motion for the Hulk’s actions; seeing him move in “real time” just doesn’t look or feel right at all.
For a film with such an elegiac title this isn’t the impression we are given leaving it right until the last minute to deliver that final blow, in what proves to be an anti-climactic moment to end the franchise. Bixby to his credit does try to make it a poetic and bittersweet exit for our long-suffering protagonist but we are left with an empty feeling of “Is that it?” as the credits roll barely a minute later.
There was talk of a fourth film tentatively titled either Revenge Of The Incredible Hulk or Rebirth Of The Incredible Hulk but the low ratings for this film nixed that idea, followed by Bixby’s death from cancer aged just 59 in 1993. Probably just as well as even this film felt dated for 1990 and with special effects in films taking huge leaps forward with Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park, something with these production values would not have survived on nostalgia alone.
It is with some irony that The Death Of The Incredible Hulk proves to be so apposite a title insofar as it was the end of era and while it had its moments for long time fans, it wasn’t quite the befitting ending the TV franchise deserved. An opportunity wasted to say the least.