The Hulk

The Hulk

directed by Ang Lee

starring Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Nick Nolte, Sam Elliott

Universal Studios

Daredevil exacts revenge in cunning, ruthless fashion; Batman outwits and out-boxes his foes; Spider-man wisecracks his way through danger. The Hulk? Bruce Banner gets angry, his skin turns green, he grows a couple of feet and adds a few pounds… and then Hulk smashes. Various convoluted, soap-opera sub-plots have been utilized to keep the Hulk franchise alive since the misunderstood behemoth’s 1960s Marvel Comics debut, but the success formula — its universal appeal — boils down to one word: rage.

With the much-anticipated The Hulk, director Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) admirably adds dimensions to the comic legend — making it much more than an action film. Ironically, the movie’s shortcomings derive from Lee straying too far from the original, simple idea of an unstoppable anti-hero that destroys everything in his path. From Hulk‘s split-screen, fade-in-and-out opening minutes, it becomes apparent that Lee has done his clever best to re-create the comic book medium’s frenetic pacing and visual style. The movie updates the Hulk’s origin to include Bruce Banner’s (Eric Bana) dangerously determined father (Nick Nolte), whose self-administered bio-chemical experiments are accidentally passed on to his son. We’re soon introduced to Banner’s love interest, Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly), whose father, played by Sam Elliott, is a dangerously determined Army general. Banner’s and Ross’ common bonds are traumatic, mostly-repressed events from their childhoods — and nutcase fathers; it becomes clear that Hulk is not merely an adaptation of Frankenstein, but a story of coming to grips with dysfunctional father-son-daughter relationships. However, many, many minutes pass while this commendable theme is established. If these foundation-creating opening chapters were meant to build suspense for the Hulk’s arrival, they don’t work.

But, just when theater-goers are reaching the bottoms of their Hulk popcorn bags, Bruce Banner’s temper gets the best of him, and his emerald alter-ego emerges for the first of the film’s several CGI-fueled rampages. The Hulk can’t help but attract the attention of defense-industry slimeball Glenn Talbot (Josh Lucas) — who naturally wants to create mini-Hulks for the military — and to get in Betty Ross’ pants. Meanwhile, General Ross just wants the Hulk snuffed out. As the U.S. Army pursues the ill-tempered goliath through the Southwestern desert, the audience is treated to more of the computer-generated mayhem that they paid to see. A lot of the CGI works, especially close-ups, but some of it doesn’t. The Hulk’s head and limbs move too quickly for a 10-foot-plus-tall giant (in the comics, he’s closer to seven feet), lending a sense of “unrealism” to some of the action. Also, the two key battle scenes — hand-to-paw combat with Gamma-irradiated dogs, and the visually-confusing, unsatifying climax — are staged at night, so the audience really can’t see exactly what’s going on. Overall, the animation is better than Ray Harryhausen’s handcrafted works, but light-years away from Pixar.

Sam Elliott’s screen-commanding presence is perfect, and Nolte has become quite adept at portraying crazy, tormented men. Josh Lucas’ sleazy Talbot is great, and he should have been given more screen time. Eric Bana’s Bruce Banner…? Any episode of Bill Bixby’s TV series (or any Hulk comic book) contains more character-revealing dialogue than what Bana was issued, but he does his best in the scowling and grimacing departments. Hulk‘s writers seem unsure of how to effectively utilize Jennifer Connelly’s talent and breathtaking beauty — is Betty Ross a practical, cure-seeking scientist, or a damsel-in-distress in the Fay Wray/Jessica Lange tradition? In any case, the Banner/Ross romance-tragedy is lost along the way, as we’re never quite convinced that Ross is in love with the poor guy.

Your average Hulk-loving joe, Joe Six-Pack, doesn’t care to sit through love stories that go nowhere; Joe Six-Pack doesn’t want to be reminded of his own unsettling childhood experiences, or of his own trauma-creating dad. Joe Six-Pack simply wants to see the Hulk smash things, and, well, the Hulk doesn’t do enough smashing in his big-screen debut. Ang Lee has made a moderately enjoyable Sunday-afternoon matinee movie; however, substituting ten minutes of meandering with ten more minutes of ass-whupping would have made The Hulk the Saturday-night blockbuster that it should have been.

Universal: • The Hulk:

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