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Bruce almighty 

Hulk can't knock life into Ang Lee's adaptation

Onlookers recoiled at their first sight of the Hulk. "Omigod -- it's awful!" they screamed. "Don't let the kids see!"

This took place not in the fictional universe of Marvel Comics or Ang Lee's new film, but in real life. The first Hulk trailers broadcast during the Super Bowl gave an early glimpse of the jade-colored giant, and fans reacted with horror at how fake the computer animation looked.

You approach the finished film expecting the Hulk to resemble Shrek on steroids, but the live-action comic book antihero proves fairly impressive. He's not as subtle a virtual actor as The Two Towers' Gollum, but more of a muscle-bound force of nature. When not working out his anger management issues on buildings or national monuments, the Hulk has an almost endearing boyishness whose close-set eyes suggest a slow learner.

As a monster, the Hulk lives up to his pumped-up reputation. As a movie, The Hulk fails on nearly every other level, collapsing under flabby scripting and weakling performances. The rampages of the title role turn out to be its saving grace.

A lengthy credits scene establishes that in the 1960s, military scientist David Banner experimented with cellular regeneration, which had side effects on his infant son Bruce. A generation later, the adult Bruce (Eric Bana) studies in a similar field, even though he believes that a mysterious accident took the lives of his parents. He works alongside all-American girl Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly), but neither of them knows that her father, Gen. Ross (Sam Elliott), worked with Bruce's dad on secret projects.

Director Ang Lee shows no grasp of how to pace his plot. Most audiences already know the basic premise, yet the film takes such pains to set things up that we always feel ahead of the story. In Spider-Man, the spider bit Peter Parker in 10 minutes. In Hulk, it takes nearly a half-hour to belt Bruce with Gamma rays, which have shocking effects on Bruce's already abnormal DNA.

As if restless, Lee uses some kind of split-screen or zoom-in for nearly every shot. The narrative device evokes comic-book layouts, which gives the film a dynamic appearance but can't enliven its many dull moments, including any with the shockingly blank Connelly. It's as if she spends the entire film trying to react, while Elliott labors not to smirk.

Bana fares only a little better. He's initially meant to be emotionally repressed but comes across so placid, he seems scarcely conscious. It helps when he encounters a sinister janitor (Nick Nolte) who claims to be his natural father. Nolte's wigged-out performance gives the film some friction. But Bana never gets to show the psycho charisma that marked his breakthrough performance in the Australian film Chopper. Whenever Bruce loses his temper, Bana gets replaced by a special effect.

Only in the last act does the film live up to its potential. Beset by the military, the Hulk escapes into the desert and discovers he can leap what looks like a mile in a single bound. He tosses tanks, downs helicopters and rides a fighter plane into the stratosphere in a series of breathtaking sequences that the big screen can scarcely contain. But it's a sad comment that the film's best scenes involve no actors, just computer software and military hardware.

For the most part, Lee simply doesn't seem to get the source material, with its echoes of Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and, via Bruce's love of Betty, King Kong. Lee tinkers with the Hulk's comic book origin through Nolte's character, but the repressed memory and sins-of-the-father themes never come together coherently. The main relationship should be between Bruce and his own id, but Lee lets the father come between them. It's rather shocking that the director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon doesn't understand The Hulk as well as the Bill Bixby / Lou Ferrigno TV series. Despite its flair for destruction, The Hulk makes you want to go out and get smashed.

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com


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