Combustible Celluloid
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With: Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Nick Nolte, Sam Elliot, Josh Lucas
Written by: James Schamus, Michael France, John Turman
Directed by: Ang Lee
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some disturbing images and brief partial nudity
Running Time: 138
Date: 06/17/2003

Hulk (2003)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

The Green Man of Fables

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Without meaning to make the old boy angry, I have to report that AngLee's Hulk is neither a total disaster nor an unalloyedmasterpiece, as many were hoping. Instead it lands smack in the middle,a resoundingly average film. It's better than Daredevil but not asgood as X2: X-Men United.

For every spectacular achievement in special effects action, the movie also has one poor one. For every breakthrough of human emotion, there is a long stretch with no human interaction whatsoever.

To start, Lee and his regular writer James Schamus -- in addition to two other scribblers, Michael France (Cliffhanger, Goldeneye) and John Turman -- have gone to great lengths to scientifically explain the Hulk's origin. In the comic book, Bruce Banner is merely hit by a gamma ray explosion. Here, Bruce's father David (Nick Nolte) is also a scientist experimenting with regeneration, as on a starfish. He experiments on himself with something called nanomeds, and the results are physically passed on when his baby son is born.

So now when the explosion hits the adult Bruce (Eric Bana), the different layers of scientific hoo-ha make his transformation more acceptable.

In addition, Bruce's flame Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly) is no longer just an airhead General's daughter. Now she's a scientist, too, working alongside Bruce -- although their relationship is now purely platonic following an amicable breakup. Her father, General "Thunderbolt" Ross (Sam Elliott) now knows all about Bruce and the Hulk, but he still doesn't like her fraternizing with him.

It takes a good long while for the Hulk to make his first appearance, and the results are mixed. Lee provides a few close-ups of the brute's face, which are stunning. But he also shrouds many of the Hulk's activities in darkness and confusion, as if to cover up for shoddy or half-finished special effects. (He's no Gollum.)

The first big fight, with three mutated dogs, is a mess. Everything shakes, the dust kicks up and obscures the view, and the camera wanders off in the middle of the action to observe the destruction of a tree or other unfortunate objects.

But a later fight/chase takes place in broad daylight, with the Hulk bounding over sand dunes and beating down tanks and helicopters. This time the action looks terrific; while teaching himself how to jump great heights and great distances, the Hulk experiences a little twitch of gravity and adjusts himself in mid-air.

In some scenes, the Hulk's face registers absolutely nothing. But in other scenes, Lee manages to make us feel sorry for the poor beast. In one, the Hulk clutches to the outside of a fighter plane as it rises higher and higher through the atmosphere. The Hulk's face as he gasps for breath in the frozen air will touch the most jaded hearts.

Indeed, it's obvious that Lee tried for something more significant than usual in super-hero movies. He probably thought about Jekyll and Hyde, and about Jack London's The Call of the Wild, where a domesticated animal returns to its primal nature. He pondered the absurdity of man putting more money and energy into destruction, war and weapons than into science and curing. He contemplated the depressing fate of Bruce/Hulk himself, forever doomed to never fit in. (The curse of almost all the Marvel Comics superheroes.)

Occasionally the dialogue reveals something interesting, as when Bruce admits that he likes changing into the Hulk, and it follows that the Hulk should not want to return to Bruce Banner.

All these things exist at the edges of the film, but Lee hasn't found a satisfactory way to follow them up, or weave them in, or make them part of the film's poetry. Instead, he whiles away the 138 minutes by creating split-screens and digital wipes and dissolves to replicate the experience of reading a comic book through panels.

As the film lumbers toward the halfway mark, all the human interaction/emotion simply disappears. Bana plays scene after scene looking as if he's holding something in -- literally -- and Connelly spends the last 60 minutes saying very little and looking concerned. Worse, Josh Lucas (Sweet Home Alabama) turns up as a particularly awful, slick, mustache-twisting bad guy with no personality.

Some critics have credited Ang Lee with trying to add new psychological layers to the super-hero film, and truthfully, he hasn't accomplished anything that either Tim Burton (Batman) or Sam Raimi (Spider-Man) have done already. Moreover, since Lee has gone out of his way to make something of great significance, he has actually called attention to the effort.

Lee does end Hulk on a high note, with a phantasmagoric battle between son and father, who has turned into the Absorbing Man, and we leave wanting more.

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