Bruce Banner (Eric Bana, "Black Hawk Down") is a mild-mannered scientist left with questions about his mysterious father and a childhood incident that has left him emotionally scarred and isolated from those who love him, including fellow scientist, Dr. Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly). In a freak lab accident, Bruce is hit with a monumental dose of gamma radiation, which unleashes the fury within him, resulting in his transformation into a 12-foot-tall green monster bent on incurring his wrath. As others around him cower in fear and stew in anger over Bruce's plight, his long-lost father, David (Nick Nolte), returns from isolation and provides clues to the mystery behind Bruce's affliction.
Ang Lee's "The Hulk" (IMDb listing) is one ambitious mother of a film. Having become used to how Hollywood was treating comic book properties, "Hulk" is a film that defies any coherent explanation. It is quite an experience, featuring pathos beyond any normal film centered around a green monster, and a filmmaker ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") behind it all trying intensely to stay true to the central theme of the piece: the untapped, raging thunderstorm of emotion inside mankind. Those accustomed to the thrills of "Spider-Man" or the chills in the "X-Men" series will find very little of those qualities in "Hulk." Lee's film is a drama first and an action movie second. My only desire for the film would be that its release could be moved to winter so the film's peculiar pacing and attempts at lush comic book realization could be more appreciated without competing with the latest in summer blockbuster bang and boom. The summer moviegoing season promises a nation of children on bikes catching matinees of this film, and I can't imagine the slowly paced, patient storytelling of the final product will live up to expectations. Those expecting to see a solid 140 minutes of Hulk-smashing will be let down. Hulk does smash, make no doubt about that, and it's spectacular, but Lee's film is more interested in what makes the "Angry Man" (as he's referred to in the film) tick.
Written by James Schamus (Lee's "Crouching Tiger" writer), "Hulk" is a Greek tragedy wrapped in the guise of comic book pandemonium. Schamus and Lee dig so deep into the world around Bruce Banner that often the Hulk scenes are afterthoughts. I know that I, and many other critics, complain about the lack of characterization in summer movie entertainment, but "Hulk" should satisfy this need for years to come. It's sluggish, epic, psychodramatic storytelling, often taking strikingly theatrical proportions in its attempt to keep the narrative away from pure cartoon, and also dark enough to make "Ordinary People" look like a weekend in Cancun. Lee makes no bones about "Hulk's" comic book origins, but he also pointedly refuses to join in the mechanical mayhem that has followed similarly-themed stories, and the television adaptation of the late 1970s.
While Sam Raimi dabbled in the idea of mimicking comic book movement in "Spider-Man, " Lee ups the ante by creating a literal comic book appearance in "Hulk." It starts with the green Marvel font of the main titles and continues with Lee's tribute to comics in his editing. Splitting the screen into comic book panels to create a distinct appearance to his vision and finding fluid ways to sell his transitions, Lee has taken the distinctive visual ideas put forth by George Romero's "Creepshow," and made them work appropriately for his own purposes. "Hulk" genuinely feels like a comic book at times, which forced me to check my fingertips for colored ink residue as I left the theater. Lee does get a little too caught up in his imagery, however, often dragging out sequences that are already lengthy enough just to show it off. But the heart of a comic book geek beats within Lee, and the fact that he sticks with this visual style throughout the picture makes "Hulk" stand out from the pack.
Though met with early criticism, I can say with authority that the computer generated Hulk creation is a complete success. Holding back at first with his visual introduction, Lee keeps the Hulk bathed in darkness for the first few times we see him, which is always a sure sign of a bad effect. But that theory is blown out of the water in a sequence where Hulk squares off against army tanks and helicopters (led by Sam Elliot, in a ferocious performance) in the California desert. Besides a wildly energizing sequence for the film, it also offers a long look at Hulk. Whether he's using the earth as a giant trampoline, beating a pack of dogs apart, or trying to convey his appreciation of Betty Ross, the team at Industrial Light and Magic have done an amazing job humanizing this computer character. He may not have the vocabulary of Gollum, but I believed every facial gesture or raging frontal assault the big green guy made. It's another fine step forward for CG creations.
"Hulk" is a difficult film to enjoy, but a very easy one to respect. It will fit along the great with the new group of comic book adaptations, though it hardly shares the same sensibilities. It may take a while for Hulk to smash, but when he does, it‘s a thing of beauty reinvented for a whole new legion of fans.
Filmfodder Grade: B+