July, 2003, Thriller

The Hulk

Director Ang Lee is an intriguing anomaly; a Taiwanese director who makes American movies, Lee's oeuvre includes art-house comedies, (Eat Drink Man Woman) an adaptation of Jane Austin, (Sense and Sensibility), a chilling examination of urban sophistication and teen-age angst, (The Ice Storm) and even an unusual peek at the little known 1860's "border war" between Kansas and Missouri. Three years ago he stunned the film community by taking on the over-worked Kung-Fu/martial arts genre and turning out the mammoth, commercially successful, (if critically over praised) box-office smash Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. He's an interesting figure in the movies because his appetite for subject matter is so parapetic; he seems completely uninterested in repeating himself. Now he's at it again, taking an old television series about a man who turns beastly (and very green) when he's angered, and transforming it into a block-buster summer action movie. The result? As a Damon Runyon character once said, 'he shoudda stood in bed".

Given the recent explosion of movies based on animated heroes, it's probably not hard to understand what tempted Lee; take this Marvel Comics character and rework a theme that so successfully entranced audiences in "Frankenstein" and its clones--the dangers of pushing the scientific boundaries of what man is capable of.

 Dr. Bruce Banner, (Eric Bana) brilliant but distant scientist, performs cutting-edge research at the sub-particle level with fellow scientist and former girl friend Betty Ross, (Jennifer Connelly) who laments that she's always drawn to "emotionally distant men". The audience knows why--Bruce's father, (Nick Nolte) experimented on his son as a young boy; when a lab accident subjects Bruce to unhealthy levels of undefined radiation, the monster is born. 

Lee tries to establish a parallel between the damage done by Nolte's egomaniacal, reckless reach for scientific glory and the equally obsessive behavior of Betty's father, an Army general played by Sam Elliott, who's as irrationally adamant about controlling scientific experimentation as Nolte is about pushing the limits of acceptable research. The movie flip-flops between a concentration on the parental pressures employed by these two dominating males and Banner's growing realization that his violent rages are physically damaging yet psychologically seductive. Does he want to remain a detached, rather bland Dr. Jekyll or cut loose as a vicious but exciting Mr. Hyde?  By the time the plot establishes all this complexity and gets to the scenes in which the enraged Banner turns into a living nightmare, the results just don't justify the set-up; Banner/Hulk looks like a giant-sized Pillsbury Doughboy who's taken an overdose of chlorophyll. He's not half as scary as Nolte's dogs, which seem to turn into contemporary versions of the Baskerville canines whenever their owner needs some serious damage to be done.

At two hours and 18 minutes in length, Hulk manages to produce at least a pair of extra climatic sequences, boring the audience with lots of exposition and not nearly enough compression of its meandering story line. Connelly, so luminous in A Beautiful  Mind becomes a Daddy's-girl-in-distress here, a role too often found in the cheaper versions of this genre, and Bana is badly cast as the tormented male lead. Even the usually fine Sam Elliott can't find a way to breathe credibility into his part as a stiff-necked general; compare this example of military rigor with his entirely believable performance in We Were Soldiers. This leaves Nolte to bring a bit of mischievous delight to these padded proceedings, and he's terrific as he casually explains to his son the advantages of being a mutant monster. Unfortunately, the plot then drifts off into a wide-screen presentation of oedipal pop-psychology, burying Nolte's convincing maniac under piles of cinematic special effects. 

Lee may well be one of the few directors who could have made this nonsense into something interesting if not compelling; but he's way off the mark here, wasting some effective sets and cinematography on a story and characters that just can't sustain the level of seriousness he was so obviously shooting for. Next time, let's hope he selects something more worthy of his efforts. 


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