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Hulk   B-

Universal Pictures

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Ang Lee
Writers: James Schamus, John Turman, Michael France
Cast: Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Sam Elliott, Josh Lucas, Nick Nolte.

Review by Rob Vaux

As the Marvel superhero train rolls irresistibly onward, the latest engineer looks a bit out of place. Ang Lee? The guy who did The Ice Storm?! This guy is heavy duty! What's he doing at the helm of a superhero flick? And not just any superhero: the Incredible Hulk, that big green slab of rage for whom mindless summer mayhem seems tailor-made. It's a project for the Sam Raimis or the Danny Boyles -- the maniacs who think of movies less as pure art than the coolest toys ever devised -- not for a soul as introspective as Lee's. And yet, looking at the results of his foray into Green Giant Land, you can't help but appreciate him. A perfect match it's not, but it certainly provides a new spin on the genre.

Lee possesses an unparalleled visual style (helped here by DP Frederick Elmes and editor Tim Squyres) which he applies with gusto to Hulk's four-color universe. Rather than centering on the world itself, with its spandex-clad figures and distorted architecture, he conveys the experience of reading a comic book in cinematic terms. The panels on the page become the focus: the connection between the images and the way they pull us through the story. Several films (notably George A. Romero's Creepshow) have toyed with the same concept, but Hulk comes loaded with a staggering array of formalistic tools: split screens, frames within frames, wipe cuts, and fade outs of all varieties. Lee and his team weave them all into the action on-screen, facilitating them through an imaginative series of character movements and camera placement. The effect draws our attention to the screen as comic book panels do; the shots are linked with each other in the same way that the Hulk himself might leap through the frames on the page. Occasionally, it becomes irritating, but mostly, it's gorgeous.

So too is the title character, a CGI creation whose believability was the subject of a lot of worries early on. A towering mass of rippling muscles and piercing glares, he suffers from the same limitations that plague all of his ilk. The sheen of artifice never quite leaves him, and while he blends well with the action, you can't forget that you're watching an effect. But Lee counters by vigorously applying the best aspects of the comic book. We see the Hulk jumping huge distances, running across the lonely desert, and yes, smashing the "puny humans" who presume to get in his way. So much joy does Hulk take in these sequences, and so brilliantly does Lee orchestrate them, that the beauty on display rapidly trumps the niggling limits of the effects.

The Hulk is the alter ego of Bruce Banner (Eric Bana), a mild-mannered scientist about as intimidating as soggy toast. His studies into nanotechnology (or something) lead to a nasty lab accident that bombards his body with gamma radiation. The results give his temper a wicked punch, morphing him into a walking steroid attack any time someone pushes his buttons. To make matters worse, he's been sitting on a lot of rage for a very long time: his girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly) has tentatively broken up with him even though they still work together; the army -- led by his gal's father (Sam Elliott) -- has some sinister designs on his research; and his own father (Nick Nolte) is a crackpot mad scientist whose genetic tampering left Bruce ripe for just this sort of mishap. There's a whole lot of people still willing to push the guy around, and suddenly, he has a means to take advantage of it.

Normally, that would all be window dressing, but Lee's thoughtful approach demands a great deal from his material. Hulk has its biggest problems here, when it leaves the purely visual and enters the thematic. Banner's dilemma is wrapped in overt Freudian overtones, plumbing the characters for truths that the film can't really clarify. Nolte's disastrous turn as the senior Banner creates embarrassing rifts that the script crudely attempts to marry with comic book pulp. They nearly tear the movie apart, and rob the more esoteric elements of their strength. Things fare better when they keep it simple: a few brief looks or bits of dialogue, meditation on the Hulk's monstrous status, and the like. Connelly's scenes with the big lug have a poignant Fay Wray quality about them -- playing beautifully with the actress's wistful vulnerability -- and the silences they share speak volumes more than the ponderous speeches with which Nolte and the other actors are saddled.

Hulk also strikes a curious tone with the action. Lee exercises great artistry during the fight scenes, as the army is unleashed and other, more outlandish threats raise their ugly heads, but they tend to elicit more shocked gasps than joyful thrills. While not strictly graphic, the violence is quite intense and may prove unsettling to sensitive souls. That's presumably the point (and it's refreshing to see a filmmaker delve into the disturbing side of summer mayhem), yet at the same time, Lee bends over backwards to soft-pedal the fallout -- leading to several head-shaking shots such that of a tank crew climbing harmlessly out of the M-1 that the Hulk just chucked around like a hackey sack. It's an uneasy mixture that never quite gels, and it turns openly brutal during a fight with some mutated dogs (parents should advise their children NOT to repeat any moves on the family pet).

But then, such is the nature of the film as a whole: an ugly mixture, like its protagonist, that we still find a way to admire. It took a director like Lee to bring so many invigorating techniques to the story, even as his artistic aspirations slowly lose their way. Considering the alternatives, it's a fair trade... though Hulk could have used a stronger foundation for its loftier ideals. In the end, out of all the truths it presumes to espouse, the most resonant is still the simplest: if you go around hitting people, sooner or later some big green son of a bitch is going to hit back.

Review published 06.19.2003.

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