Title: The Trial of the Incredible Hulk
Director: Bill Bixby
Writers: Gerald Di Pego (Based on the character created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Bill Everett & John Romita Sr.)
Distributed By: Bixby-Brandon Productions & New World Entertainment
Starring: Bill Bixby, Lou Ferrigno, Rex Smith, John Rhys-Davies, Marta DuBois, Nancy Everhard, Richard Cummings Jr., Nicholas Hormann, Joe Mascolo, Mark Acheson, Stan Lee (cameo)
Release Date: May 7, 1989
As Stan Lee might say, welcome back true believers! It’s time for the next thrilling installment of HULK MONTH here at Movie Mondays! All this month we’ll be taking a look at The Incredible Hulk’s forays into the world of feature films. Last week we checked out The Incredible Hulk’s triumphant return to live-action and his exciting team-up with The Mighty Thor! This week, the Jade Giant is back and giving audiences the sixth live-action adaptation of a Marvel Superhero, as Hulk joins forces with The Man Without Fear… Daredevil!!!
The story begins with Dr. Banner having seemingly just given up on finding a life worth living. Drifting from one place to the next, he finds himself back in the big city, THE big city in fact, where most Marvel Heroes seem to live, and more importantly the home of swashbuckling ninja extraordinaire Daredevil and the villainous Kingpin.
Banner crosses paths with a few thugs working for Wilson Fisk aka The Kingpin of Crime (John Rhys-Davies) who assault a woman on a train. When the good doctor goes to intervene, his hulking green alter-ego emerges and a good bit of chaos ensues. Later, a disoriented Banner is found and arrested by the police. His lawyer just happens to be Matt Murdock aka Daredevil! After Murdock convinces a reluctant Banner to join forces, the two work together to confront Kingpin and take the first steps in tearing down his powerful criminal organization.
It’s important to note that while this is an Incredible Hulk movie, it was designed as a spin-off to give Daredevil his own series, much like the previous film, The Incredible Hulk Returns. So, much like Thor, the majority of the story focuses on our guest hero Daredevil and not The Hulk. This is all well and good though, considering that Rex Smith delivers a fine performance as Matt Murdock. Smith crafts a well-developed character, laying on the charm, sincerity, pathos, and pulls off that tough guy charisma that’s so very crucial with a character like Daredevil.
The supporting characters all do their jobs, none of them ever bringing anything truly substantial to their performances, but not doing anything to hinder the rest of the film-viewing experience. Joe Mascolo presents an enthusiastic portrayal of a hard-nosed Police Chief that you just can’t help rooting for. Mark Acheson (who would later go on to voice Sabretooth in the Marvel animated film Hulk VS) appears as small-time Marvel villain Turk Barrett. Unfortunately, John Rhys-Davies as Kingpin is just sort of middling in his portrayal. Sometimes he’s too over the top for his own good, and other times he’s simply forgettable. He has a few good scenes, for instance when he holds his big meeting with several other crime-bosses, but for the most part there’s nothing standout about his performance.
As always, Bill Bixby shines as Dr. Banner. He just knows this character inside and out. One thing that sets this performance apart from Bixby’s previous depictions of the character is Banner’s emotional state in this film. Bixby plays a near completely broken man, desperate to just “stay buried” as he puts it in the film. Two scenes, one where Banner contemplates whether or not to help a woman on a train, and one where he frantically tries to convince Murdock not to put him in a courtroom, truly showcase Bixby’s depth and intensity in the role.
And what would an Incredible Hulk movie be without its title character? Lou Ferrigno, while never getting to do much more than scowl, flex, and smash things, gets a moment or two to shine in this film as well. In the scene of Hulk’s courtroom rampage, Ferrigno really shows his menace as he makes you believe that Hulk might just actually kill the people in the room with him. And in a tender scene after Hulk rescues Daredevil, Ferrigno really captures the almost child-like innocence of The Hulk.
While on the subject of the cast of characters, here’s a neat little bit of trivia for you. Nancy Everhard, who plays Matt Murdock’s assistant at his law firm, also appeared in The Punisher, a film adaptation of the titular Marvel character starring Dolph Lundgren in the same year. Another fun fact and VERY IMPORTANT FIRST for this film: this marks the first time Stan Lee would make a cameo in a feature based on a Marvel Comic!
One major complaint with this movie is in regard to the end of the climactic battle. Without spoiling the ending, one must take a moment to point out the stupendously dreadful visual effects utilized for, and the design of, Kingpin’s aerial transportation. It’s utterly cheesy, even for a 1980s made-for-TV superhero movie. It’s just something you have to see in order to believe. It’s just unfortunate that it’s so bad, because it’s one of the only negative aspects of an otherwise rather enjoyable film.
While on the topic of complaints, let us address the look of the film. Wilson Fisk, a clean-shaven, completely bald man in the comics, sports a beard and a fair amount of hair on his head. A minor complaint that more die-hard fans might have about this portrayal, but this critic can overlook such things more often than not as long as the rest of the performance is at least tolerable, which it is.
In regard to changes that this critic can overlook, one should address Daredevil’s costume. In the comics, one of his numerous nicknames is “Hornhead,” because as Daredevil, the character sports little horns atop his cowl. Not in this movie. Also, this film version of Daredevil wears neither the red costume nor the red-and-yellow costume from the comics. Much like Batman would go from the grey-and-blue of the comics to the all-black look this same year, Daredevil sports an all black costume as well. This change is perfectly alright with this critic insofar as it keeps this character SLIGHTLY more realistic (as realistic as you can be in a movie about The Incredible Hulk) and emphasizes the fact that Daredevil is a stealthy, nighttime hero who is essentially a ninja. Bright red and yellow doesn’t really scream “hides and strikes from the shadows.”
As mentioned earlier, this film was released in the hopes of creating a spin-off feature for Daredevil. It’s quite unfortunate that this spin-off never came to be, as I would have loved to see more of this take on Daredevil and his world.
The film itself, with the exception of the aforementioned complaints, is pretty terrific overall. It’s filled with little nods to the comics. For instance, minor characters like Turk, and little things like references to Josie’s Bar and possible cameo by Daredevil’s law partner Froggy Nelson, just add to the overall enjoyment of this movie. The two starring actors, Bixby and Smith, have great on-screen chemistry and the earnestness in their portrayals of their “bromance” (for lack of a better term) just adds an element of believability which helps invest the viewer in their story.
If you haven’t seen The Trial of the Incredible Hulk, do yourself a favor and check it out! If you have seen it, take a trip down memory lane and watch it again. Either way, you won’t be sorry for watching. In fact, you really should check any local store where movies are sold, or shop around online, to pick up a copy of this, as it’s easy to find very inexpensive copies of the double-feature which has this movie as well as The Incredible Hulk Returns (along with some pretty cool bonus material).