Sunday, October 12, 2014

(Not) Love Actually: Trial of the Incredible Hulk

At this weekend's New York Comic Con, the cast and creators of new Netflix series Daredevil swung by, dropping tidbits, screening footage and showcasing a few stills.  The Man Without Fear is shown to be clad in all black on a rooftop which is straight from some Frank Miller - John Romita, Jr. version of the comic so fans seemed happy enough.  When I saw said photo, I did a double take and thought it was a high-res capture from 1989's TV movie, The Trial of the Incredible Hulk.  Basically, it's a guy covered in all black with a bandana over his eyes with no eye slits.  Or, as one comic loving friend put it, a ninja with a mouth.

If you'll recall, Marvel's record with live action outings have only recently been successful.  In the 70's and 80's you had less than well received takes on Spider-Man, Captain America and Doctor Strange.  The one that stuck was CBS' adult take on The Incredible Hulk in 1977.  Bill Bixby played David Banner, instead of Bruce, rumored to be too homosexual a name at the time or that producer Kenneth Johnson didn't like double alliteration names that Marvel was so known for (Reed Richards, Matt Murdock, Peter Parker, etc.).  I wonder how double B Bixby felt about that...After exposing himself to gamma radiation, Banner transforms into the huge, muscular and green giant known as The Hulk, played by bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno.  The show follows his nomadic adventures trying to control the beast and rid himself of it.  With 2 Hulk Outs per episode, the rest of the runtime would be filled with Banner's arriving in a new town, seeking work, somehow getting caught up in local trouble then Hulking out to bust some heads or random property.  An intrepid news reporter begins to chase him from town to town.  The show was a hit and ran for 5 seasons but ended with a cliffhanger in 1982.

By the late 80's, Marvel was owned by Roger Corman's New World Productions and along with the young, visionary NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff, set out to bring the Hulk and some friends from the Marvel Universe back into the public consciousness.  Tartikoff is credited with turning then low-rated NBC into a powerhouse with hit shows like Miami Vice, The A-Team, Knight Rider, Alf, Saved By the Bell and The Cosby Show changing the medium and attracting millions of viewers.  A television movie, The Return of the Incredible Hulk aired in 1988 to solid ratings and introduced Asgardian god of Thunder, Thor.  Thor is kind of a loud mouthed douche bag in the flick who likes to drink beer, fight and call Hulk "troll" a lot while hefting a prop hammer that looks surprisingly not hefty.  Further adventures of Thor starring Eric Allan Kramer were not commissioned as the telefilm is extremely clunky with lots of slow motion, over the top performances and unexplainable poor story logic.

Next up was 1989's The Trial of the Incredible Hulk where Banner is working construction somewhere cold but then heads to the big city after not wanting to Hulk out on one of the asshole crew members.  Vancouver stands in for the I believe nameless city which is rash with street and high level crime as well as a vigilante known as Daredevil making things interesting.  After a brazen daytime jewelry store heist planned by crime Kingpin Wilson Fisk, two thieves hit the subway where one of them hits on a chick with big hair.  When Banner tries to intervene, he's tossed aside and gets P-I-S-T, unleashing da Hulk and tearing through the tin can.  Lou Ferrigno looks yoked as ever clad in green paint, a big wig, fake nose and green slippers.  Waking up in human form, Banner is tossed in jail where blind lawyer Matt Murdock visits him.  Turns out the big haired lady has been threatened by Fisk's thugs and claims Banner was the one who assaulted her.  Murdock has a unique gift and knows when someone is lying to him and wants to help Banner.  That gift?  Why, super radar sense from losing his sight as a boy saving an old man from a runaway truck.  A steel drum full of radioactive waste hits young Matt and takes his sight but amplifies his hearing, scent and touch to the point he can listen to your hearbeat and read normal print with his fingertips, even with gloves on!  His backstory from the TV movie comes straight from the comic books, former boxer for a father who gets killed by gangsters and all.

It's said that Trial was to serve as a backdoor pilot for a Daredevil series.  If you watch closely, you can see groundwork laid out with an interesting hero protagonist who could deal with people at city hall by day and thugs in alleys by night.  There's a supporting cast; funny, fresh from the Army office assistant Al (Richard Cummings, Jr.) filling in for the comics' Foggy Nelson, Murdock's partner in law and would be love interest Christa (Nancy Everhard, who would co-star in New World's big screen adaptation The Punisher w/Dolph Lundgren the same year).  There's sleazy street informant Turk (Mark Acheson) and the tough yet honest cop with a great voice and hard hitting delivery Tendeli (Joseph Mascolo) who inspires Murdock to become a "Daredevil" that can fight the corruption and not be killed off, paid off or scared off.  Then you had a recurring villain in the sleek, suit clad and operatic Wilson Fisk (Indiana Jones' & Lord of the Rings' John Rhys-Davies).  Former 70's teen idol/singer Rex Smith plays Murdock with handsome dignity and Daredevil with action posing, overcooked hero delivery.  With Banner's knowledge of radiation mishaps, there's an instant bond with Murdock and the two are like Radioactive bros, preceding Banner and Tony Stark's science bromance from The Avengers.

While there's a lot of poke fun at or laugh about, for some reason, from the opening somber piano theme, Bixby's grounded, honest portrayal of David and even tempered directing, I just get into it.  Back in those days, this was before Tim Burton's Batman became a global phenomenon, costumed superheroes were not easy to pull off so giving DD an all black leotard outfit was a lot more understandable than giving him a red outfit with horns.  Said outfit is like a gymnasts singlet with wetsuit-ish turtle necked shirt and a tight, domed hood with a sleeping mask looking thing covering the eyes.  There's some gloves, elbow and knee pads, a belt and big boots to give some texture while the trademark billy club is in effect complete with a few gadgets like a zipline attachment and plunger firing wire thing.  The fight scenes are pretty TV movie with lots of slow motion and awkward pause filled karate moves and exhales along with more than a few unconvincing hits.  Lance Rubin's synth score is seemingly generic yet appropriate and effective.  The ending features some really bad visual effects (this is the late 80's, on TV no less) as Fisk escapes his skyscraper in a helicopter/hovercraft!  All in, I dig it, the actors take the material seriously, there's no winking or camp factor and that lends the semblance of drama.  They just could have used a bigger budget I'm sure but it's still fun to see The Hulk and Daredevil in the same 90 minutes a decade before the first X-Men movie and 20 years before superhero team up The Avengers.

After the surprise success of Return, New World was set to produce two additional features for NBC and bring Daredevil, She-Hulk and Iron Man to the small screen.  While Return was the 4th highest rated program of the week, Trial did not lead to a Daredevil series and we never got to see low budget versions of Iron Man or She-Hulk.  New World did attempt to produce a She-Hulk theatrical film from writer/director Larry Cohen that would have starred Brigitte Nielsen but it never happened either.

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