Reviewed By Collin Souter
Posted 06/22/03 02:40:05

"Incredible, indeed"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

“The Hulk” represents another oddity for Ang Lee to add to his diverse resume. The director of such wide-ranging fare as “Sense and Sensibility,” “The Ice Storm” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” wants us to know that he doesn’t like to be pigeonholed as a director of this kind of movie or that kind of movie. He loves them all and wants to try them all. So, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anybody when he decided to try his hand at the BIG ACTION SUMMER POPCORN BLOCKBUSTER!!! Yet, “The Hulk” feels like an Ang Lee movie through and through, and once again I marvel not just at the way Lee made the movie, but also by the way he didn’t make it.

“The Hulk” has no desire to be just another comic book adaptation. It wants to get our minds going not at the intricacies of the plot, but at the inner workings of human behavior, particularly anger management. It doesn’t want to charm the pants off us with a “likable leading male” and his “love interest.” Instead, it practically alienates us from the tragic Bruce Banner character by casting an almost stoic Eric Bana, an unknown, ego-less actor who has only appeared in an obscure movie called “Chopper.” Finally, “The Hulk,” like “Crouching Tiger,” doesn’t want us to get in on the action first and the characters second, but vice versa.

At first, the movie plays out like a character-driven mystery, almost as though Stan Lee’s Incredible Hulk character never existed as a comic book. Just what did scientist Bruce Banner see in his childhood that traumatized him so? Why does he have no interest in finding out about his real “deceased” parents? Basically, what the hell is wrong with this guy? Once we see Banner transform into The Hulk for the first time (about an hour or so into the movie, if I’m not mistaken), it really comes off as though science has merely led him astray, thereby lending tragedy to his transformation.

The characters’ plight center around their relationships with their respective fathers. Bruce Banner’s real father, a reclusive nutball scientist named David (Nick Nolte), has come to work as a janitor at the laboratory in which Bruce works. David’s identity soon comes to pass, which of course Bruce has a hard time accepting. Bruce’s ex-girlfriend and partner, Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly), can’t figure out Bruce’s emotional distance and also has problems with her own father, General Ross (Sam Elliot), the very same man who helped lock up Bruce’s father 30 years ago. Bruce and Betty also have a meddling third-party love interest, the conniving and slimy Talbot (Josh Lucas), whose final exit may be the most memorable screen departure of the year.

Most of these characters have a connection to a past incident involving the test of nuclear weapons in New Mexico, but they’re emotional ties rather than plot-driven ones. They all have an abandonment issue associated with the incident, but it also connects them as scientists and military officials witnessing the horrific side of their chosen profession. The movie examines this issue in broad strokes, through nightmares, flashbacks and moments of clarity that occur when one would least expect it. It sits at the heart of this fantasy and Lee knows that the meat of the story lies there and not at some good-versus-evil slick joyride we have come to expect (not that I don’t enjoy those, too).

After saving a scientist from a hazardous laboratory accident, Bruce starts to feel physical changes, which, unbeknownst to him, also stem from a chemical injected into his body at age four by his estranged father. The stress of work, the re-emergence of his deranged father, General Ross’s meddling into Bruce’s affairs, Talbot making his moves on Betty as well as their project and everything else that could make Bruce “angry” finally reach a crescendo. Bruce becomes The Hulk, the tragic anti-hero who doesn’t want to save the world so much as save himself from the world.

Conversations concerning “The Hulk” usually start off with someone saying, “I don’t know. It looks so hokey in the previews. The CGI looks really bad.” I couldn’t agree more. Yet, when watching the movie and the character come to life, Lee and his editor, Tim Squyres, cut things so rapidly, you won’t have time to think about how it looks. Plus—and here’s the most important thing—when they move in for a close-up of Hulk’s brooding, saddened face it looks just as believable and as compelling as Golemn in “The Two Towers” fighting to keep control over his sinister other half, Smiegel. We can all breathe a sigh of relief. The previews don’t do the effects justice. The team at ILM gave The Hulk a great performance and I bought into it completely (and I’m as cynical as anybody about CGI).

The performances by the actual humans also deserve praise. As stated before, Eric Bana makes a great Bruce Banner, but mostly because we haven’t really seen him in much of anything. Because we haven’t warmed up to him as an actor, we don’t instantly find him sympathetic, which may be the point. This movie centers around the complexity of anger, so why cast a charming leading man with box office clout?

Jennifer Connelly has always had that look of a beautiful, tough, yet lost soul. She has not been written as a cardboard love interest whose sole purpose is to calm Bruce down when he get a little agitated. Her character matters just as much as Bruce. Finally, Nick Nolte gives the movie its much-needed over-the-top sense of weirdness and dementia. I get a gleeful kick out of watching Nolte chew scenery like Animal from The Muppets. His monologue towards the end could very well become the stuff of legend.

I haven’t even described my favorite aspect of Lee’s film. So many directors claim to have created a comic book movie that looks and feels like a comic book. Yet, they really come off as slick products with nary an adventurous cut or camera angle in sight. Ang Lee has actually created a cinematic comic book. Split screens dance in and out of frame, sometimes with six panels on screen all at once, sometimes with three shots of the same action coming in and out of the picture. By adopting this breakthrough trait, Lee has crafted quite an anomaly. He has re-invented the comic book movie genre by breaking it down to its original visual essence while at the same time doing away with its trappings by centering the story around emotion instead of plot.

“The Hulk” will likely disappoint many people expecting a brainless diversion from the summer heat. Like last year’s “Minority Report,” “The Hulk” demands much from its audience and either you’ll be with it, or you won’t. If you’re the type of person who can’t get past certain absurdities of fantasy entertainment, such as how Bruce’s shorts expand and shape-shift along with the rest of his body, this may not be the movie for you. If you don’t possess the sense to appreciate an intense character study mixed in with hyper-kinetic B-movie sensibilities with an A-budget, you may want to stick with “X2” (also a good comic book movie). If you’re one of those people who kept checking their watch during the dialogue-driven scenes of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” this may not be the “Spider-Man” you have been waiting for.

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