The Hulk

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THE HULK

6/10

USA 2003 : Ang LEE : 138 mins

[HULK-size review]

After starting life in 1962 on the pages of a Marvel comic-book devised by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby, the Hulk crashed into the mainstream in the 1977 thanks to TV series The Incredible Hulk. Bill Bixby played nondescript scientist David Banner who, after unwisely dosing himself with an excess of gamma rays, kept turning into a green, muscle-bound rage-monster (Lou Ferrigno) when sufficiently angered. Budgetary restrictions meant that the TV show was essentially a violent cousin of The Littlest Hobo, whereby the hapless Banner trekked from town to town helping the needy.

The comic-strip Hulk engaged in more spectacular superhero-style adventures, which the millions lavished on this new movie version come much closer to replicating by pitting the Hulk – this time the alter ego of Banner’s son Bruce (Eric Bana) – against the US military. But director Lee also takes care to place his man-monster within a much longer cinematic lineage, nodding at various times to (among others) the many adaptations of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Frankenstein, both versions of King Kong, Cronenberg’s The Fly, Verhoeven’s disappointing Hollow Man and Raimi’s rather more successful Spider-Man.

The blockbuster status of Raimi’s picture raised expectations sky-high for Marvel’s next big summer ‘tentpole’ movie – and many observers wondered whether the team of director Lee and scriptwriter James Schamus, previously best known for arthouse fare, was the wisest choice for the project – even if their Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon did win four Oscars and cross over to many multiplexes. The US box office provided a brutal, instant, negative response: The Hulk‘s opening weekend grosses, though large by normal standards, were decidedly below expectations and, worse, takings then plummeted in following weeks.

That such a relatively brave experiment produced relatively unfortunate results is a shame, not least because studios will now have even more excuse to play safe on future big projects. To be fair, the film is no masterpiece – it falls short of both The Fly and Spider-Man, and while Lee’s best Hollywood picture The Ice Storm gains depth with each viewing, it’s hard to imagine sitting through The Hulk for even a second time.

But even if the overall package tries too hard to please all audiences from 5 to 75, there are some amazing things here – not least the new, entirely computer-generated Hulk himself. Whenever this 15-foot behemoth is on screen, smashing things up or using his hugely muscled legs to bound across huge distances, the film clicks into gear. As with Crouching Tiger, the often-torpid down-time is a price worth paying for the next big action set-piece – although, as with that movie, less can sometimes be more. Danny Elfman’s score often verges on the intrusive, especially when the soundtrack is full of incongruous new-age wailing – but when Lee takes the risky step of turning the music down, or even off altogether (as when the Hulk passes through the sand dunes of a desert, or flies on the back of a jet fighter to the edge of space) the effect can be magical, almost transcendent.

Lee’s more gimmicky directorial flourishes are much less successful, however – at times he tries to replicate the look of comic-books by using split-screen, moving or static screens-within-screens, fancy dissolves and wipes. But these tricks are only deployed intermittently, and end up feeling arbitrary affectations – either every scene and transition should use these techniques, or none at all. And his reliance on close-ups, cutting quickly between the participants in each scene, is also a distraction. This also serves to undermine some unexpectedly serious thesping from Bana, Nick Nolte (as David Banner, here a murderous mad-scientist), Jennifer Connelly (as Bruce’s on-off girlfriend Betty Ross). Adhering more closely to the typical comic-book style of caricature characterisation are Josh Lucas, as the evil representative of Big Business, and Sam Elliott as Betty’s gruff soldier father, who finds Bruce a most unsuitable suitor for his daughter (cf Scott Glenn in Buffalo Soldiers), giving him extra impetus as he leads the army’s resistance to what they codename ‘Angry Man’.

Or should that be ‘Angry Young Man’? The script – by Shamus, Michael France and John Turman (story by Shamus solo) – is anything but afraid to tackle Serious Issues: depending on your point of view, their Hulk is either psychologically ambitious and audaciously cerebral, or wildly, incongruously pretentious. The most appreciative viewers will perhaps be teenagers – especially boys who find themselves suddenly the same size as, or even bigger than, their fathers, and will sympathise with a character who undergoes a physical transformation even more rapid and drastic than their own. As with the Ferrigno version, however, this Hulk is mysteriously mute (he rumbles one line during a dream sequence) – a preverbal infant who doesn’t know his own strength.

Junior members of the audience, however, (The Hulk has been aggressively marketed to the under-10s) will surely be dozing off during the clunky exposition of the first half-hour, which sets establishes both Bruce and Betty, growing up on the same desert army base, as victims of severe family-unit dysfunction: Bruce’s birth-mother was killed when he was a small child; Betty’s mother is never seen or mentioned at all. And neither has much of a relationship with their father(s) – we very briefly see Bruce’s adoptive mother Mrs Krenzler (Celia Weston), but Mr Krenzler is as ghostly a ‘presence’ as Mrs Ross, while Betty speculates aloud about her “inexplicable obsession with emotionally distant men.”

Bana’s Bruce Banner certainly falls into that category – indeed, the Australian actor so totally captures the “bottled-up” nature of his character that he ends up an almost total blank. It’s hard to believe this is the same actor who exuded such dangerous charisma in Chopper and Black Hawk Down, but Bruce’s blandness doesn’t make him into a very sympathetic leading man. This is clearly intentional on the part of the scriptwriters and director, of course, as they seek to emphasise the contrast between Bruce and the Hulk: a heroic figure who saves lives and isn’t actually shown killing anyone at all. On reflection, however, wouldn’t it have made more sense to have chosen a rather spindlier actor than the chunky Bana?

Best not to ask such nitpicking questions of The Hulk, a film whose serious undertones are constantly undermined by touches of absurdity: while it’s easy to overlook the matter of Bruce’s miraculously expanding underpants (all his other clothes are shredded when he zooms to Hulk size) as something that goes with the territory, the scene where David sets a pack of genetically-modified dogs after Betty is another matter entirely. This sequence is so ridiculous in every way it’s hard not to share General Ross’s tone of bemused contempt at what he snortingly describes as an assault “from a mutant French poodle!”

Moments like this make the first hour or so fairly tough going – but The Hulk, thankfully, picks up in its second half. The romance between Betty and Bruce is convincing and unsentimental, the Hulk’s rampaging antics provide much eye-popping spectacle, and David’s character development takes some unexpected, spectacular turns to provide a rousing climax. Like its title character, this Hulk is a big, ungainly, oddball beast: strangely likeable and often effective, despite being twisted somewhat freakishly out of shape by the unresolved flaws in its complex DNA.

14th July, 2003
(seen same day : Warner Village, Newcastle-upon-Tyne)

by Neil Young