Directed by Bill Bixby, 1990.
Starring Bill Bixby, Lou Ferrigno, Elizabeth Gracen, Phillip Sterling, Andreas Katsulas, Barbara Tarbuck, Anna Katarina.
Fugitive David Banner, after years of struggling with the beast within, believes he may finally be close to a cure with the help of fellow biologist Dr Ronald Pratt. However Pratt’s research is also coveted by a group of deadly spies, including one reluctant secret agent who forms an unexpected relationship with Banner…
SOB. THIS ISN’T a spoiler, spoiler-phobes – it’s right there in the title and there’s no getting away from it; the not-so-jolly Green Giant meets his maker, and by the end of the film is no more. He’s ceased to be. He is an ex-Hulk. He’s pushing up daisies – which presumably wouldn’t be much of a challenge given his superhuman strength.
Death of… is the third in a trilogy of TV movies which followed the end of the Incredible Hulk show. The first two had secondary functions as pilots for never-made spin-offs, featuring fellow 60s-born superheroes Thor and Daredevil. Whilst this final instalment doesn’t highlight another Marvel character by name, it does feature – stop me if you’ve heard this one – a beautiful, ass-kicking, master-of-disguise Russian secret agent, keen to break away from her murky past (Gracen). Though she’s addressed as Jamin throughout and not Natasha Romanoff, viewers will recognize she has much in common with the Black Widow.
Jasmin makes for a more successful co-star and partner for Banner (nudge nudge, wink wink), partly because of her more down-to-earth status as a spy rather than a blind vigilante acrobat or immortal Viking warrior; but also because her own story arc reflects that of Banner’s, both trying to escape their life of violence for something better. Gracen’s youthful, elfin appearance gives her an engaging vulnerability, which mixed with a quiet but resolute defiance – and a flair for disguises – makes for an engaging hero.
The theme of disguise and pretence is prevalent throughout; the opening minutes show Banner apparently reduced to the level of halfwit, working as a cleaner in scientific research centre; we later learn he’s merely masquerading as a floor-scrubbing simpleton to gain sneaky night-time access to the labs in order to research his anger management issues. Later on Bixby plays it rather more for laughs, parading as a upper-class twit in order to kidnap one of the villains. Both of these serve to highlight Bixby’s range as a performer, and sadly this was to be one of his last performances in three decades of screen acting.
Unlike the California sun-bathed TV show, this is a largely gloomy, downbeat affair, reflecting both Banner’s mental state and the dark nature of superhero movies at the time, such as Batman, Darkman and RoboCop. Bixby plays Banner like a traumatized victim of an abusive relationship, desperate to be free of his other half. Interestingly, his assertion that the Hulk is ‘the worst in us’ and ‘maybe what we were before we became human’ is questioned by Pratt’s also-a-scientist wife (Tarbuck), who gently suggests to him, like an alcoholic in denial, that ol’ Jade Jaws is both human and a true part of him.
This is a largely gloomy, downbeat affair, reflecting both Banner’s mental state and the dark nature of superhero movies at the time
Nevertheless, it’s Banner’s attempts to escape his life and find some kind of happy ending that bring him into contact with Jasmin, and before long they are forced into various scrapes and go into hiding together. Despite an age gap there’s a believable desperation-born tenderness between the two, which eventually results in some good old log cabin-based rumpy-pumpy – something later Banner actors had to turn down for fear of losing control. Poor Ed Norton. Moving quickly on, there’s some quality villainy in the form of Andreas Katsulas’ urbane taskmaster and his boss (Katarina), unusually reasonable with hostages but quick to shoot her own men when it suits her.
The action sequences are the usual mix of somewhat silly strong arm stunts, with baddies incapacitated but not injured, followed by the Hulk running away before the police arrive. One memorably ludicrous sequence sees Banner and Jasmin perused by henchmen and their car forced onto a building site, whereupon it is slowly crushed between two diggers. Not only does this unorthodox assassination method allow for the Incredible one to emerge and force said diggers back – somehow stalling their engines – it also inexplicably prevents the heavies trying any other methods, such as, y’know, shooting them. The guns come out and things pick up during a bullet-riddled siege and aeroplane-escape sequence at the finale; and one joyous early money shot sees the Hulk run through an entire house, leaving three demolished walls and two bemused residents in his wake.
It goes without saying that the special effects are no match for the million-dollar CGI of the green meanie’s modern movies; but it also goes without saying that no computer generated Hulk could ever be as engaging as Lou Ferrigno, and no amount of pixelated musculature as impressive as his 6’5” Mr Universe physique. Over the fourteen years he was in the role, Ferrigno claimed his place alongside Christopher Reeve as one of the definitive screen superheroes, and still voices the Hulk today in cartoons and the Avengers franchise.
Death of… was never really intended to be the end; but a follow-up, Revenge of the Incredible Hulk, never made it beyond the scripting stage, and a She-Hulk pilot, which Bixby and Ferigno were involved in, was also cancelled. Perhaps it’s for the best, as this is a character – like Hugh Jackman’s equally lengthy and tragic portrayal of wolverine – who earned a proper ending.
Review by Sesame Snax