Hulk (United States, 2003)
Hulk represents the most involving superhero motion picture since >Superman soared skywards in 1978. By taking its time to develop characters and situations, Hulk does what so many action/adventure movies fail to do - allow us to really feel for the protagonists. Director Ang Lee, fresh off his success from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has re-imagined The Hulk as a tragic figure trapped by fate and the hubris of others into showing the inner beast whenever rage overwhelms him. In truth, the film has a greater synergy with classic monster movies like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein, and (especially) King Kong than it does with the current crop of superhero motion pictures. Spider-Man or X-Men, this isn't.
The Hulk becomes the latest Marvel Comics superhero to get his own movie franchise, following in the wake of Blade, The X-Men, Spider-Man, and Daredevil. However, in this case, Lee and his screenwriters have essentially thrown out what was previously established. The foundation may be the same as in the comic books, but everything else is different - sometimes radically so. Yet, despite abandoning so much, Lee pays homage to what has gone before. Both Stan Lee (who, along with Jack Kirby, created the character on paper) and Lou Ferrigno (who played the title character in the late-'70s/early-'80s TV series, "The Incredible Hulk") have brief cameos.
Hulk begins with a short prologue in 1966 where a young Bruce Banner watches his unhinged father, a discredited military scientist, commit an unspeakable deed. Skip ahead about 35 years. Bruce (Eric Bana) is a scientist working at the Berkeley Nuclear Biotechnical Institute alongside his ex-girlfriend, Betty (Jennifer Connelly). Their current project has hit a few stumbling blocks, but that hasn't stopped sleazy corporate executive Talbot (Josh Lucas) from taking an interest. Also watching things with a careful eye is Betty's father, General Ross (Sam Elliot), who is wondering if the project has military applications. Then, one day, a lab accident exposes Bruce to a massive dose of radiation. Not only does he survive, but he isn't even injured.
While lying in his hospital bed, he receives a visit from a grizzled old man who claims to be his father, David Banner (Nick Nolte). The distracted David speaks in riddles and half-truths, but Bruce understands the meaning when, in a later fit of rage, he is transformed into the Hulk - a 15-foot high behemoth with green skin, massive strength, and a near-invulnerability to conventional weapons. Suddenly, everyone wants something. Bruce and Betty are looking for a cure. Ross and Talbot are wrangling over whether to kill Bruce or cultivate him. And David has something sinister in mind.
The Jekyll and Hyde aspects of Hulk are fairly obvious. The Frankenstein allusions involve David Banner's belief that he can improve upon humanity and "go beyond God's boundaries." He sees Bruce as his creation. But the movie which Hulk most strongly resembles is King Kong. Like the giant ape, the Hulk is a freak of nature, hunted by the authorities. His battle with a trio of mutant dogs is reminiscent of Kong's dinosaur fights, and the scene when the Hulk squares off against helicopters recalls the giant ape's final stand. There's also a Beauty and the Beast element, with Betty being able to soothe him. There's even a scene in which he gently picks her up in his hand.
The film may be a little too intense for younger children. It also gets off to a slow start, so those with short attention spans may fidget. Once the action starts, however, it rarely pauses (and then for only short periods to allow the plot to advance). The centerpiece is a lengthy chase-and-battle sequence between the Hulk and the U.S. military that's offers plenty of adrenaline and testosterone. In this kind of movie, we always root for the monster, and that's the case here, even when the odds seem overwhelming. The ultimate resolution is murky. It's easy to figure out what happens, but a little more difficult to decipher the whys and hows. I'll probably need a second viewing for that.
Although Lee injects plenty of philosophy and tragedy into the film (the tone is unusually somber for a popcorn movie, although not so dark that it kills the enjoyment), he never forgets that the Hulk is a comic book character. His direction is frequently wildly over-the-top, with kinetic camera movements and a wide variety of angles and distances. He also frequently uses multiple split screens that divide the viewing area into a multi-paneled canvas that looks very much like the page of a comic book. There are times when Lee's visual techniques seem excessive, but they stop short of being pretentious or irritating.
The acting is strong. Eric Bana, a little known actor from Down Under (see Chopper for more of him), does a phenomenal job as Bruce, a classic brooding, tragic figure. Jennifer Connelly, once again playing the girlfriend of a superhero (she last did this in The Rocketeer), develops Betty into a strong, compassionate individual. Sam Elliot manages the difficult task of suggesting the military stereotype (gruff, uncompromising, untrusting) without falling into the trap. Ross' motivations are more complex than those usually associated with this sort of character. He is inflexible, not evil. Nolte plays David Banner as a mad scientist, but without a hint of camp or humor. This isn't a funny, over-the-top lunatic, but someone who is as menacing as he is deranged. Finally, there's Matthew McConaughey lookalike Josh Lucas, who makes Talbot into a one-dimensional caricature - someone whose comeuppance we are thirsting for.
By now, it is well known that the Hulk is an entirely computer-generated entity (although he borrows heavily from Bana's features). Reports about the quality of the CGI work have varied, but I found it to be exceptional. The face is fully expressive (there are some remarkable close-ups), the body moves realistically, and the interactions with real people and objects are flawless. Sure, there's something larger-than-life about the Hulk, but this is, after all, a comic book movie. It also seems that the visual effects were tweaked slightly after the trailer was made, because they look more polished.
It's interesting to note that all three of the recent major Marvel superhero movies (Hulk, X2, and Spider-Man) have been helmed by directors whose roots are in independent cinema. There's obviously a reason for this - these men understand how to tell a story. They're not posers like Michael Bay, whose productions are flashy, superficial, and dumb. Lee's vision of Hulk is fresh and exciting, and he has fashioned a motion picture that's a breath of fresh air. This is one of the few times when I have left a theater hoping for a sequel - I would like to see more of this Hulk. Until then, there's plenty here to enjoy. When the dust settles, this may be the best of the summer blockbusters.
Hulk (United States, 2003)
Cast: Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Sam Elliott, Josh Lucas, Nick Nolte
Screenplay: John Turman and Michael France and James Schamus
Cinematography: Fred Elmes
Music: Danny Elfman
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures