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HULK, THE(director: Ang Lee; screenwriters: John Turman/Michael France/from the story by James Schamus/based on the Marvel Comic; cinematographer: Frederick Elmes; editor: Tim Squyres; music: Danny Elfman; Eric Bana (Bruce Banner), Jennifer Connelly (Betty Ross), Sam Elliott (Gen. “Thunderbolt” Ross), Josh Lucas (Glenn Talbot), Nick Nolte (Father, David Banner), Paul Kersey (Young David Banner), Cara Buono (Edith Banner); Runtime: 138; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Avi Arad/Larry J. Franco/Gale Anne Hurd/James Schamus; Universal Pictures; 2003)
It was the look of the fifteen foot Beast leapfrogging about that gave the film its momentum and awe.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

“The Hulk” is based on the Marvel Comics’ character created in 1962 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The original Hulk was colored gray for the first issue only. The color for the man with big time anger management problems was changed to green so the illustrators could get a more lively color in print. The Hulk only lasted for a few issues and it wasn’t until two years later that the creature was pitted opposite Giant-Man in Tales to Astonish. In 1968, he was featured in his own comic book and renamed the Incredible Hulk. The Hulk continued uninterrupted until discontinued in 1999. But he has become one of the most popular comic book superheroes and was soon reinstated in a new series first called The Hulk and then changed back to The Incredible Hulk, which is the way it still continues. There was a popular but dumb TV series from 1977-1982 that starred muscleman Lou Ferrigno as the Hulk. He was comically costumed in a ridiculous wig and smeared with a garish green body paint, as he displayed temper tantrums and crushed large objects by his brute strength. Out of nostalgia, Ferrigno has a brief cameo. Thankfully this Hulk captures the comic book spirit and flavorings that the TV show couldn’t touch with a ten foot pole.

Warning: spoilers in the form of plot points revealed throughout.

The sensitive Taiwanese-born director Ang Lee (“The Ice Storm“/”Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon“) is an odd choice to do a summer blockbuster sci-fi/pulp thriller. It’s the type of film he has never attempted before, as his specialty is personal films about relationships that are in trouble. It’s also the first time he ever had a big budget of $150 million to work with, which is probably a figure that adds up to the budgets of all his previous films. Though Lee does bring the Hulk to life, he makes the tale too tedious and tame and takes the comic book story far too seriously. The film is almost humorless except for the running gag when the mild-mannered research geneticist whose alter ego is called the Hulk warns his antagonists “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” The weak ending and not too daring battle scenes add to its failure to get as much fun out of this huge monster tale as it should have (The Hulk in one misplaced battle takes on a mutant French poodle turned ferocious from the Hulk’s own DNA and two other mutant killer-canines).

The Hulk goes ape in the desert and is about to take apart San Francisco and at last give the fans of summer blockbuster films what they expected, but it stops short of tearing San Francisco apart and having some good ol’ dumb fun. The ending is more a tip of the hat to Freud than a Stan Lee existential one, and it comes after the comic book mood again fades and the storyline returns to the talky dramatic form. It futilely tries to explain the unexplainable unreal green man as if he were involved in a Shakespearean tragedy. The Hulk disappears in a cloud-of-energy and ends up as a doctor in the rain forests of South America (readying himself for a sequel is the cynical but real meaning of this conclusion).

What Ang Lee brings to the table is a reasonable script from James Schamus his longtime collaborator and producer friend (he is helped by co-writers John Turman and Michael France). Lee tells a very human story of a nice guy trying to deal with his inner demon and his childhood traumatic incident, as he’s stymied by his repressed behavior and childhood memory loss. Lee updates the 1960’s paranoia first presented in the comic book over the Cold War and post-nuclear age effects by bringing up modern man’s ability to have the technology to do Hulk-like things that pressure the human condition even more than in the past.

The casting of Eric Bana, a Hollywood fresh face, as The Hulk is a good one. The Australian actor and former comedian and star of Chopper brings the right mixture of intensity and blandness. Jennifer Connelly as Betty Ross is the attractive genetic scientist with the soft eyes, who is the unsuspecting ex-girlfriend and colleague. She’s an obviously good choice as the compassionate love interest for the Hulk. Nick Nolte as the mentally disturbed long-lost father who is responsible for his son’s problematic existence but refuses to take responsibility for his reckless actions as he clings to his self-righteous beliefs that he can do no wrong because he’s a true scientist searching for more knowledge, gives the film through his electrifying Shakespearean thespian overacting some needed chills. Nolte gives his villain role shadings of complex emotional behavior, making him not all bad and even to be pitied for the monster he has become. He is perceived as a father who cares but can’t see how destructive were his amoral actions. There’s added excitement about his role due to his disheveled look that reminds one of his recent mug shot. Sam Elliot as Betty’s combative father with a stiff military attitude, Gen. “Thunderbolt” Ross, gives his usual sparkling character portrayal as the gruff holder of military secrets. As an unyielding father, he has trouble relating to his daughter despite loving her. The most fantastic accomplishment, though, was the CGI Hulk created by those digital magicians at Industrial Light and Magic, led by Dennis Muren. They made the Hulk look and act human and portrayed him as a monster to be pitied (just like Frankenstein and King Kong).

The Hulk is kept alive by aggression and grows more angry and stronger with every attempt by society to destroy him. The monster inside is kept under wraps by Bruce Banner’s repressions of fear and loneliness, which he controls unless someone puts a cattle prod to him or does something almost as nasty such as call him a pathetic loser.

Ang Lee turns this action tale into a restrained melodrama about how Bruce Banner deals with his emotional and psychological Jekyll-Hyde struggle, and how he fights to gain control of his split personality (also seen as an ongoing battle between the influences of the environment and the genes). Bruce’s father was a genetic scientist on a desert Army base under the command of General Ross, working on a secret military project to create a super immune system. But the Army refused to allow him to experiment on humans and removed him from the program when they found him disobeying orders. The scientist injected himself with the experimental serum and as a result his child was born with a mutation defect, or as the father says his son is unique.

The action picks up in a science lab in the Bay Area where Betty left her uptight scientist boyfriend because he lacked the proper emotional responses to be her lover. Dr. Krensler who is really Bruce Banner but doesn’t know it yet, was adopted at an early age and believes his parents are dead. Bruce gets inklings of the truth from his recurring nightmares until he finally learns the truth when his maniacal dad returns from a 30 year Army jail sentence to be the janitor in his lab.

Betty and Bruce are thrown together again to work on a special groundbreaking project that a private science company with military connections, headed by the bad scientist Glenn Talbot, is interested in taking over in a hostile merger. Talbot aims his science research company for huge profits and not to benefit humanity, which turn off both Betty and Bruce. They reject Talbot’s offer to sell out and work for him for a bundle of money.

Betty realizes something is strange about Bruce when an experiment blows up and his heroic actions saves their colleague but leaves him apparently unscathed—even though his body absorbed a deadly dose of gamma radiation. The mutation had been dormant in Bruce until now, but this lab accident along with his pent up rage previously repressed triggers him to Hulk-out.

This damaging lab explosion also brings Betty’s sourpuss father and all his military might down on the timid sweetheart she has unswerving affection for, and the bland geek gets angered and turns into the raging Hulk right before our eyes. You would think that should summon a call for campy fun time and all the pseudo science jibe and dramatic sobriety should have been blown away with the lab. But Lee is not a fun type of director and the film plods along for far too long without getting past the action mainly happening inside Bruce’s head (in part, a nice tip of the hat to Jung…but…taking the crowd out of the action story for too long). Lee tries to inject life into the story by trying various arty filming devices. A comic book layout look is employed by using split-screen panels and a nod to real science is introduced by shots of starfish turning green in their tanks to show it’s possible for creatures to change colors and there are also numerous tricky photographic shots of cellular changes. But “The Hulk” got its priorities wrong and didn’t let the Beast off its leash to run amok and really do some damage — which is how such a pulp adventure should have gone and should not have worried so much about Oedipal conflicts and bogus science theories. Maybe Ang Lee is too smart and nice of a guy to Hulk-out and turn a slimy green monster into a crowd pleasing movie, even for the big bucks. But I think that’s what the audience wanted rather than such a subdued arty telling of a pop culture adventure. It tried too hard to tell a serious story about the failure of both fathers to provide a loving home, but it was the look of the fifteen foot Beast leapfrogging about that gave the film its momentum and awe. The story itself didn’t have a deeper meaning than that, but that creative special-effects effort alone makes this project worthwhile.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”