Review by Dustin Putman
3 stars out of 4
Based on the Marvel comic book by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, "Hulk"
comes equipped with an unusually strong and independent-minded pedigree.
The director is Ang Lee, he of such art-house hits as 1997's "The
Ice Storm" and 2000's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." The cast includes
recent Australian newcomer Eric Bana (2001's "Black Hawk Down") and
Academy Award winner Jennifer Connelly (2001's "A Beautiful Mind")
as a pair of scientists/ex-lovers, and Nick Nolte (1998's "The Thin
Red Line") and Sam Elliott (2002's "We Were Soldiers") as their authoritative,
domineering fathers. And the film as a whole depends more on its nuanced,
multilayered story and troubled characters than on mindless action
sequences and overblown special effects. Yes, it's safe to say "Hulk"
is not your garden-variety comic book adaptation.
What "Hulk" does achieve is a fond and unrivaled faithfulness to its
comic book roots. With complex, swirling camera movements, courtesy
of cinematographer Frederick Elmes (2002's "Trapped"), and knowledgeably
flashy editing by Tim Squyres (2001's "Gosford Park") that uses split
screens and scene transitions to their fullest advantage, the film
is a visual feast. Not only is there so much to take in with your
eyes that a second viewing is imperative, but "Hulk" stands out as
the closest any motion picture has come to a comic book sprung to life.
"Hulk" is ponderous and takes its time in revealing its story threads
and true character shades--a rarity in summer blockbusters. Although
there are awe-inspiring, edge-of-your-seat set-pieces (mostly in the
last hour of the 138-minute running time) and some stunningly realistic
CG effects to be had, action-hungry moviegoers may honestly not know
what to make of Ang Lee's filmmaking approach and John Turman, Michael
France, and James Schamus' wordy, adult-minded screenplay. Imagine
Brian De Palma, David Lynch, and Alex Proyas joining forces on an
operatic tragedy, and the results may come relatively close to the
demanding but enriching experience "Hulk" ultimately delivers.
In a prologue set in 1966, a young Bruce Banner witnesses a traumatic
childhood experience involving his caring mother and psychotic military
scientist father. In the present day, Bruce has followed in the footsteps
of his long-lost father and become a scientist at the Berkeley Nuclear
Biotechnical Institute. Working alongside his ex-girlfriend, Betty
Ross (Jennifer Connelly), Bruce's latest project involves subjecting
lab animals to radiation and gamma rays in an attempt to enlarge and strengthen them.
When Bruce is accidentally exposed to the radiation himself, it uncovers
something that has always been simmering underneath his surface: a
rage that transforms him into the Hulk--a green-skinned, 15-foot monstrosity
with a strength and invincibility unsurpassed by any other living
organisms. As the military closes in on the Hulk, Betty must come
to terms with her tender feelings for Bruce and an unspoken bond that
has left both parties little more than emotionally wounded children--she
with her cold father, General Ross (Sam Elliott), who wants to harm
the Hulk, and Bruce with his unhinged dad, David Banner (Nick Nolte),
who is partially accountable for his son's burden as the Hulk.
"Hulk" is as ambitious as any of the recent Marvel comic adaptations
(2002's "Spider-Man," 2003's "Daredevil," 2003's "X2"), if only because
it may require multiple viewings simply to catch and understand everything
going on with the characters and premise. This is not to say that
"Hulk" is incomprehensible, because it definitely isn't; it simply
requires more concentration and thought than your average visual effects
extravaganza. The movie is not cheerful and lightweight, but dark
and downbeat, filled with hurtful childhood wounds and repressed memories.
The outcome of Ang Lee's courageous cinematic treatment of "Hulk,"
a potentially lucrative franchise, is not always completely successful,
but nothing less than admirable. A climactic face-off between Bruce
and David is overly stagy and overacted by an otherwise effective
Nick Nolte, and the overall atmospheric mood occasionally threatens
to drown the picture's entertainment value. Because Bruce (as the
Hulk) is not so much a superhero as a badly-tempered giant who uncontrollably
destroys stuff, a rooting interest in his fate is not as strong as
it should be. Still, while the film may not be what some viewers are
expecting and, therefore, may turn them off, one cannot deny the sheer
aspiration and scope of what director Lee has attempted. A sequence
involving three mutated dogs is utterly thrilling and devilishly mischievous,
and the whole San Francisco/desert finale is exhilarating on a visceral
level while never losing sight of its purpose.
Above all, "Hulk" is intelligently written and conceived, filled with
such innovation and keen detail that it is more than worth closer
inspection and further viewings. Eric Bana is acceptable in the difficult
role of Bruce Banner, while Jennifer Connelly turns in another passionate
and believable performance as the strong-willed but confused Betty
Ross. "Hulk" may not be as purely fun as "Spider-Man," but Ang Lee
should be commended for putting a whole lot at stake with this project:
a robust budget, technically advanced and intricate effects, and a
story and characters more complicated and developed than what one
is used to seeing within this genre. For what it attempts to achieve
and more often than not does, "Hulk" is an unconventional, ballsy winner.
Copyright © 2003 Dustin Putman