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THE HULK (***)

Movie Review by:
Jim "Good Old JR" Rutkowski
Directed by:
Ang Lee
Written by:
David Hayter, James Schamus, Michael France
Starring:
Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Nick Nolte
Running time:
138 minutes
Released:
6/20/03
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some disturbing images and brief partial nudity.
"...seriousness of a sobering drama"
It's too bad that Universal Pictures is going the usual route in marketing Ang Lee's "The Hulk." Yes, it's a "superhero flick" (even though its title character isn't really a superhero), one ready-made for the cineplex at your local mall. But it's also a thoughtful, deeply introspective and rather talky film about bad fathers and damaged children. I'd venture to say that Lee's take on the Marvel Comics creation is less action-packed than conversational. It has long stretches in which its characters simply share their thoughts and feelings, looking for someone with whom to connect. By all rights, "The Hulk" should be playing in tandem at art houses, where it would attract a different audience, and at multiplexes for its target audience. It's been conceived by Lee and company in a thoroughly unusual -- and, I assume, deliberate -- way. Like the conflicted title character, created in 1962 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, this version of the material is at odds with itself. This may not sound like a good thing, but in this particular case, it works -- or, rather, it works as well as it can.

As its lead character, Bruce Banner (played by Australian actor Eric Bana), goes back and forth between his rather stolid, repressed real-life self and his fantasy life as the raging, fully liberated Hulk, the movie seesaws, too. At first, this is disconcerting and even a little schizoid, but it fully fits a character with a serious personality disorder. And so we get one film in which Banner and his one-time love, Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly), make an unconscious connection because of shared troubled childhoods under the thumbs of domineering fathers (played by Nick Nolte and Sam Elliott, respectively), and another in which Banner is transformed into a snarling beast from all the pent-up rage and anger that have been instilled in him.

The movie turns into a comic book only when the Hulk is on screen. Otherwise, it is played with all the seriousness of a straight, sobering drama. Except for the scenes in which Banner morphs into the Hulk -- scenes that don't arrive until about an hour into the plot -- there is nothing pulpy about Lee's (Ang, not Stan) take on this character. Unlike other adaptations of Marvel Comics, there is practically no humor here, no relief from the depressing image of a wounded child trying, however disastrously, to heal. Lee has called his version of the material "a psychodrama," and that's exactly how it plays, with a few horror-fantasy sequences tucked in.

This movie is every bit as spiritual and arty as Lee's last film, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000), just as dark as that film but a good deal less buoyant. And, once again, Lee is in no rush to tell his story. He makes us wait for the Hulk's grand entrance, giving us half a movie of exposition explaining how Banner became the person he is. In early scenes, we see his scientist-father, David Banner (played by Paul Kersey, but dubbed with Nolte's voice), doing horrific experiments on his son, fiddling with the boy's genes so that, years later, when Bruce is a genetic scientist himself and is subjected to an accidental blast of gamma radiation in his lab, something irrevocable happens.
Those emotions that he has held in all of his life, most of them bitter ones, are suddenly unleashed and assume the form of a giant green behemoth who can't be stopped or placated.

By this time, David Banner has materialized (now in the form of Nolte) and has insinuated himself back into his son's life with the intent of bonding with him again -- not with Bruce, but with the person who David knows is hidden inside Bruce and whom David prefers. David thinks that the real Bruce is weak -- and undesirable.
Nolte has a curious scene toward the end of the film, in which he rages at his son, that's been staged by Lee as if it were something from a two-character David Mamet play.

Meanwhile, Betty's father, Gen. "Thunderbolt" Ross (Elliott, in a great performance that walks a fine line between intense and over the top) -- the nickname says it all -- is out to pursue and destroy the Hulk, regardless of how his daughter feels about Bruce. Betty's father is as cold as Bruce's father is mad. Both are egomaniacs, and neither cares much about what his child wants or thinks.

On the sidelines is the character of Glenn Talbot (a smirking Josh Lucas), a greedy young entrepreneur who is Bruce's competition for Betty -- and who wants to exploit the Hulk.The split-screen device is used here in a novel way to give the film the feel of comic-book panels. Except for this touch and the digitally created Hulk, however, the graphics of this movie are subtle rather than broad.

This film is like "A Beautiful Mind," with a cartoon character occasionally superimposed over everything. Whether it works or not is up to you. It's relative. It's an experiment that some may consider silly, but is really rather daring.

THE HULK 2003 Universal Pictures
All Rights Reserved

Review 2009 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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