The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1989) – Directed by Bill Bixby – Starring Bill Bixby, Lou Ferrigno, Rex Smith, John Rhys-Davies, Nancy Everhard, Joseph Mascolo, Michael O’Hare, and Stan Lee.
David Banner (Bill Bixby) is a smart guy, but it is not his smartest moment to take the ticking time bomb that is the Hulk (Lou Ferrigno) into a city.
Banner (calling himself Belson this time around) is working outside of a city doing physical labor but after being roughed up by a fellow worker, he decides it’s time to move on, and the big city nearby is the place he decides to go to stay hidden. Crammed cities are almost as good a place to hide as isolated locales, but when you’ve got the Hulk buried inside of you, and all it takes to pop him out is a bit of uncontrolled rage … maybe the desert is a better place to lose oneself than the city.
Banner’s less-than-brilliant decision makes for some good TV, though.
Unlike THE INCREDIBLE HULK RETURNS, which focused a bit too much on the appearance of Blake and Thor, TRIAL does a much better job integrating Daredevil (Rex Smith) and the Kingpin (John Rhys-Davies) into the mix this time around. Part of what makes this integration better is the approach the story takes with the non-titular characters. In RETURNS, it was Blake and Thor bursting into Banner’s story and too much of the focus was on the interlopers; TRIAL operates antithetical to that, with Banner entering a city where an ongoing story is already taking place. Since he’s our in, it feels more natural to stick with him, and then when we go off to spend time with either Matt Murdock, Daredevil, or the Kingpin, it feels like we’re getting a fuller part of Banner’s story instead of getting a competing story.
Rex Smith is pretty good as Matt Murdock. The movie does feel the need to keep reminding us, “He’s blind!” but Smith manages to get some good moments out of it. When he stops by the hospital to interview a woman who was attacked on the subway and is now blaming David (he was there, didn’t want to get involved, then did, and Hulked out) thanks to pressure from the mob, she asks him if he can see her bandage. She realizes that he can’t see the bandage, of course, and starts to apologize.
“I’m sure it’s a fine bandage,” he says easily and quickly. “May I sit down?”
Smith is less impressive as Daredevil. It’s not that he looks bad (that’s the ugly black suits fault), but the cheeseball lines he has to spout at times is right out of the How to Be a Lame Superhero Handbook.
Continuing the one really positive aspect of RETURNS, the best part of TRIAL focuses on the relationship between the human halves of our resident superheroes. When David and Matt are on screen together, TRIAL works as serious human drama. The scene between the two at Matt’s apartment where he tells David his origin story in order to get him to help carries with it the weight the two men feel at having such dangerous secrets. David doesn’t fully relent, or share his own secret, but he is moved by Matt’s story. David is particularly drawn in when he learns that Matt’s blindness was caused by radiation.
After this chat, Matt gets a tip that the woman that the Kingpin (they never actually call him the Kingpin, just Wilson Fisk) is holding is being kept an an abandoned movie studio, and Matt goes off to rescue her. David eventually follows and stands helplessly outside as Fisk’s men do a number on Daredevil, so he goes all green rage monster, busts the door down, and rescues the fallen vigilante. After carrying him away, a barely conscious Murdock gets his fell on all over the Hulk’s face and holds it as he transforms back into Banner, thus ceding his secret to the lawyer.
John Rhys-Davies is very good as Wilson Fisk, though the production makes some odd choices for him, such as keeping him in really large, dark sunglasses, and filming him from sharp angles that are supposed to make him look cool, I guess, but really just make him look like the poster boy for late ’80s kewl. Rhys-Davies’ deep voice and commanding presence counters all that gimmickry, creating an effective bad guy to play off both the Hulk and Daredevil.
I really like how TRIAL puts the Hulk in tight spaces. In showing the Hulk inside a subway car, a courthouse, and then a prison, the sense of the Hulk’s power comes across far more effectively than it does jumping off a building or crushing steel. Even if the movie doesn’t even show a second of the Hulk breaking out of Banner’s cell or busting through the far wall, the first scene in the subway car sets an appropriately physical tone.
If TRIAL was intended as a back-door pilot, it is a bit of a shame that we didn’t get a regular Daredevil TV show out of the deal. The set-up between Murdock, his fellow attorney (not Foggy Nelson), and his male secretary, plus the addition of Wilson Fisk overseeing the city’s crime factions, could have turned out okay, even if the late ’80s were probably not the best time for a superhero show to find a network audience. I don’t think it would have set the world on fire, but I’m guessing it would have been more successful than Street Hawk.
Come on, you didn’t really think I was going to go this entire reaction without mentioning Rex Smith’s 13-episode series about a physically disabled guy who fights crime on a fancy motorcycle, did you? It kind of makes you wonder – when they were casting TRIAL, did someone say, “Look, if we’re going to have a physically handicapped man dress in black and fight crime, we HAVE to get Rex Smith?” Or did Smith have to audition like everyone else, with all the other actors in the waiting room eyeing him with hate for his experiential advantage?
Bill Bixby does his best to put Daredevil over, and it would have been a fitting legacy to everything Bixby did in terms of making good, quality superhero television if these last three INCREDIBLE HULK movies had launched a few additional series, but really, the depiction of neither Thor nor Daredevil is as striking as that of the Hulk.
THE TRIAL OF THE INCREDIBLE HULK is notable for being the first Marvel movie of any kind to feature Stan Lee, who plays a juror at David’s trial. That’s not why you should watch the film, but it’s nice to see Stan make an appearance. (Also, if you’re a Babylon 5 fan, Michael O’Hare has a small role as a mobster thug.) TRIAL is a marked improvement from RETURNS; where RETURNS is a movie I watch simply for the chance to see a live-action version of Thor, TRIAL is actually worth watching for the story. It’s a good effort and a decent TV movie, thanks mostly to the work of Bixby, Ferrigno, Smith, and Rhys-Davies.