CD Review: The Incredible Hulk

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Composer: Craig Armstrong
Label: Marvel Entertainment
Suggested Retail Price: $16.99
Grade: B+

When it comes to an ideal composer who can Hulk out, an Englishman who specializes in chick flicks wouldn’t necessarily come to mind- that is if you were expecting Bruce Banner to transform into Hugh Grant. But who’da thunk that the maestro behind such swooningly lush scores as MOULIN ROUGE!, MUST LOVE DOGS, LOVE, ACTUALLY, ROMEO AND JULIET and FEVER PITCH could rip musical pants with the best of them? For with his alternately brooding and rampaging score for THE INCREDIBLE HULK, Craig Armstrong puts himself on the superhero scoring map with the same effectiveness that Ramin Djawadi donned IRON MAN’s musical suit.

But whereas that score was a thrilling product of the propulsive Hans Zimmer school of action scoring, Armstrong’s INCREDIBLE HULK is a big, dark, symphonically percussive beast that reveals his composer as the same, guy who brought on the thunder with THE BONE COLLECTOR, PLUNKETTE & MACLEANE, KISS OF THE DRAGON and ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE. And who’s to say that even his date movie scores didn’t have their share of turbulent drama? Yet if you’re looking for what THE INCREDIBLE HULK transformed itself from, than its closest cousin in Armstrong’s cannon is probably WORLD TRADE CENTER, where life ticked away with yearning, suspenseful humanity.

However, that moody mix was distinctly less interesting than how Armstrong’s mutated it for HULK, where the thing that’s ticking away is Bruce Banner’s calm pulse rate- its over-stimulated alarm bell signaling the arrival of Marvel’s not-so jolly green giant. It’s a constant state of anxiety that Armstrong’s dark approach captures well, while still managing to be thrilling enough to satisfy the fans this time around.

Much has been made about how “disappointing” Ang Lee’s take on The Hulk was. But whether you agree with that or not, that director’s cerebral approach certainly allowed for an interesting, experimental score by Danny Elfman, whose descending motif seems to be referenced here, along with a tip of the hat to Joe Harnell’s tv theme. It’s the series tortured “man on the road” drama that fuels this HULK, the sense of a decent guy who can’t find peace, or love no matter where he goes. In that respect, Armstrong’s score is far more straight-ahead stuff than Elfman’s, if no less powerful for it- even if the music never lets up in the film.

Here we’re given two generous cd’s of dark, surging stuff, brass and strings roaring with anger and power. It’s a wall of brooding sound that brings to mind the thrillingly monolithic vibe that Trevor Jones gave to scores like DARK CITY, G.I. JANE and DESPERATE MEASURES. And while it kind of blurs together as a pure listen, hearing how well Armstrong’s score works in this terrific film makes you appreciate his accomplishment in essentially unfamiliar waters.

Though there’s reams of music here, Armstrong’s strong, melodic talents produce a number of effective themes and numerous musical standouts, from the wild percussion as Bruce flees special ops in Brazil to the chest-beating orchestra that plays The Hulk’s victory of The Abomination like Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” But a real, clever knock-out in the score is announcing Banner’s transformation into The Hulk with a gnarly organ, a sound that firmly makes him into a cross between Frankenstein’s monster and King Kong- both misunderstood creatures who could capture a woman’s heart as easily as rip it in half. And the fact that the unconsummated romance between Bruce and Betty Ross has such a gripping, emotional power is no doubt due to Armstrong’s strengths in the doom romance arena, especially with the kind of beautifully yearning work he did on ROMEO AND JULIET and MOULIN ROUGE! Here that tragic passion helps give the new HULK an emotional resonance that truly smashes the first film- but not Elfman’s thoroughly different score for it.

One can only imagine the kind of approach that Elfman would have taken for a scene here where The Hulk is seemingly cured on the Leader-to-be’s lab table, if only Ang Lee hadn’t told Elfman to go in a 360 degree way for idiocy like Hulk dogs. But when you hear how a confirmed symphonic sentimentalist like Armstrong pours it on the old fashioned way, his music gives the new HULK’s highpoint the kind of electrifying conventionality that would make Dr. Frankenstein scream “It’s Alive!” Armstrong smash indeed, as he wears the green with pride of a composer who’s found he can do superheroics with the best of them.

Go green with the score for THE INCREDIBLE HULK HERE

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