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Simply put, THE HULK is a bad movie with good intentions. It has all the symptoms of something truly grand. No one will accuse them of not making a profound film here. But in the end, it's a disappointment almost as colossal as the Hulk himself. And at the heart of it, shocked as I am to say it, is Ang Lee.
The Hulk has seen his origin change in his various incarnations, but the set-up has remained essentially the same. Exposed to gamma radiation, Dr. Bruce Banner finds that he becomes a giant one-man demolition team when anyone makes the foolish blunder of upsetting him.
In this way, one could argue that THE HULK owes a lot to classic horror. The idea of a scientist turning into a madman has always sounded a lot like DR. JECKYLL & MR. HYDE to me. The premise also echoes the countless werewolf tales, so long as you substitute an emotional trigger for the full moon. A timely mad scientist angle that the film throws in doesn't hurt either.
In the 1960s, Dr. David Banner (played by Paul Kersey in flashbacks) is in charge of a military research project, which could lead to the development of genetically enhanced soldiers. Told to cool off on the research because of the changing political environment, he is ordered not to test on humans. But 'ol David Banner (a nod to the television series which substituted the David name for Bruce) has gotten a bit overzealous with his research. Instead of following orders, Banner injects himself. Not long after, his wife (Cara Buono) tells him she is pregnant with their first child, Bruce.
When Bruce is a child, something horrible happens. Something which will haunt Bruce for the rest of his life. Something he represses for a very long time. In fact, at that moment, he represses everything. When kids push him around at school, he doesn't fight back. When he's in danger of losing his temper, he walks away and mopes. He is told his parents are dead and represses all memory of them, but the seeds are within his brain already.
When we get to know Bruce (Eric Bana - CHOPPER) as an adult, things haven't improved much. He's a scientific genius, sure. But he's still emotionally distant and doesn't have one healthy relationship to his name. This is why his girlfriend, Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly - A BEAUTIFUL MIND, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, PHENOMINEA) leaves him, although they still work together. What are they working on? Why the same thing his father was tinkering on. One difference that shows maybe the apple does fall a little far from the tree - while the father worked for the military, Banner and Ross' research has a more "Doctors Without Borders" approach.
In a selfless act, he throws himself in front of a heaping dose of gamma radiation when things go wrong in the lab. The dose should have killed him. Instead, it doesn't seem to hurt him at all. "Remember my bad knee," he asks Betty, "Well now, it's my good knee." But still something isn't quite right. The gamma rays trigger the genetic boost he got at his conception and when his father (now played by Nick Nolte) comes back into his life and shows himself to have a few screws loose, Bruce gets very, very angry.
His first transformation into the Hulk is one of the film's great moments, and there are a few. He grows to 14 feet tall. He smashes everything in sight in possibly the first true act of rage he ever displayed. When he sees his father, he looks him in the eye for the first time as an adult, and there is genuine compassion and pity in his father's eyes. But when he touches him, the moment is severed and even as the Hulk, he flees from his past.
The military takes an interest in Bruce, and even Betty's father, Col. Sam Ross (Sam Elliott) seems to have ties to his past. They don't know how to deal with him and Bruce is even more unsure of how to deal with himself. Through it all, Betty remains sympathetic and tries with all her might to cure him of his affliction. Unfortunately, Dr. David Banner has continued in his quest for a cure. But a cure to what? And what will he do in order to secure it?
THE HULK begins promisingly, with an opening title sequence that is just great. It's all split-screen and nifty genetic do-dads. A dizzying montage that just breezes through an astounding origin. The film zooms in and out of images after a split second, an baffling display to get your revved up and wake you out of any duldrums. It's an amazing start. I just wish the whole film weren?t filmed that way.
Yes, unfortunately, the filmmakers have a million things to say, and they want to say it all at once at the expense of the shot composition. Split-screen, an effect I usually love when someone like DePalma does it, is more constant here than an episode of 24. Images flip and blur and the whole thing is quite exhausting. To give you an idea, think equal parts Warren Beatty's DICK TRACY and Tsui Hark's KNOCK-OFF.
Given the subject matter and the way the writers present it, wouldn't it have made much more sense to direct the action at a slow burn? Things start out normal and then get more and more frantic as Banner's blood begins to boil? But no, we're left with this presentation which instead of a slow burn, burns out before the film is half over.
Amazingly enough, all of this dizzying hubris is filmed by Ang Lee (THE ICE STORM, CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON). For someone known for his subtle, beautiful and understated direction, it's somewhat disheartening to see him continually masturbate with 120 million dollars worth of studio money.
Not that there isn't some nice eye candy here. There are a few standout images that are, for lack of a better term, beautiful. The standouts include the image of the lone Hulk standing alone on a mesa surrounded by military helicopters, a creature completely on his own. There is the green gamma mushroom cloud that erupts in the literal mind's eye of Banner. And my favorite, the image of the Hulk standing in the shadows, lying in wait behind a closet door. Unfortunately, there are far too few of these moments and before we can absorb the power of the imagery it's onto the next dose of information overload.
Fast and loose has its place and in a different film, it would be welcome. But the script is extremely serious and is obviously trying to lift itself up into high drama. So much that Nick Nolte, an actor who is trying to distance himself from popcorn roles, has a large role. The script, which was handled by three separate writers, moves at a languorous pace. It is more concerned with exploring Bruce's personal demons. The film explores issues of repressed memories and emotions, child abuse, physical violence and dysfunctional parenting and it does all of this quite well. But it's all at odds with Lee and editor Tim Squyres, both of whom act as if they've been on a steady diet of espresso and Red Bull energy drinks. The film is at it's best when it slows down. The first and last dialogue scenes between Bana and Nolte for instance are incredible. The performance by Connelly as the tireless but not powerless supporter is something to behold, even better than her Oscar-winning turn in A BEAUTIFUL MIND.
Don't worry kids, it isn't all talk. There are action sequences as well. An extended chase with the Hulk against the United States military is truly spectacular.
There has been a lot of concern over how credible the Hulk looks in CGI. In fact, I had no trouble buying the Hulk as a character. Once again, they make a believable character out of a digital creation thanks to some heart-wrenching emotions (According to the IMDB, the Hulk's facial expressions were all performed by Connelly. This makes it clear that hers is the best performance in the film, although most people won't realize it.).
It's also nice to see the Hulk in his natural persona. In the comics, he was never just some steroid-enhanced Mr. Hyde with a green dye-job. He's a 14 foot tall behemoth with great intelligence, lightning reflexes, speed, agility, strength and the ability to leap more than a few tall buildings in a single bound. Thanks to some impressive effects, the Hulk accomplishes all of that here and it's nice to see the record set straight. Disappointingly, the film does not also translate the Hulk's fluent speech onto the screen, which is far more than the "Hulk smash!" everyone has become familiar with. With a film that explores everything else, it's too bad they don't also explore how the Hulk and Banner fight each other over who has the dominant personality.
Of course, there are just a handful of action sequences and the real action seems to be going on in everyone's noggin. But smart as it is, even the script is not flawless. As far as dialogue goes, there's some great lines but quite a few howlers as well. As Betty makes an appeal to spare Bruce, she says, "He saved my life." "Yes," her father answers, "from a mutant French poodle and for that I'm grateful." He then goes on to point out, "He is his father's son... every last molecule of him."
At 138 minutes, the film is too long by around 20 minutes. Even the last action sequence feels like one too many, even if it is quite creative. Because in addition to some poorly concieved lines of dialogue, the script is also quite boring in spots. The script moves at a snail's pace while Lee's direction moves like a cheetah. The result is direction fit for a different script and vice versa. It even robs the film of what should be some of it's biggest dramatic moments. Lee makes the mistake of filming this like a comic book, complete with panels and multiple framing techniques. But the script is a straight-faced exploration of our personal demons. Which is not to say comics can't be deep, it's just that when dealing in the medium of film, Lee's directorial approach feels artificial compared to the sincere themes.
It's a frustrating film, because it has a lot going for it. Making a big-budget comic book film that is more concerned with the psychology of it's characters than their physical prowess is a ballsy move, and the spirit contained within THE HULK should be commended. It has fantastic performances and a thought-provoking script. It also has dull spots and some poor dialogue. It has some incredible action sequences. It also has two of those sequences filmed way too dark and a feeling of overkill towards the end. It's a smart script with enough respect for where it comes from not to talk down to viewers. Although even I'm wondering why they can't just give Bruce a few king-size Zolofts and call it a day.
THE HULK becomes a great disappointment, because it's heart is in the right place. They set out to make not just a comic book retread, but a beautiful heroic symphony on the human condition. Unfortunately, too many notes are off-key and the song is ruined.