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Anger Mismanagement

 

The Hulk

Ang Lee, USA, 2003

Rating: 1.2

 

 

Posted: June 21, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau

When you get right down to it, the story of the Hulk is nothing new. Although over in the comic, writer Bruce Jones is currently spinning a grandly byzantine tale involving undead secret agents and sinister government conspiracies, at its heart the Hulk's tale is just an atomic-age take on the repression of our darker urges, as timely now as it was when Robert Louis Stevenson unleashed Mr. Hyde upon Dr. Jekyll, or when a couple of nudists named Adam and Eve ate the wrong fruit.

Watching The Hulk, Ang Lee's long-awaited take on the Marvel Comics behemoth dreamed up some four decades ago by another guy named Lee, that theme of repression proves ironically apt. Many folks have scratched their heads wondering just what Lee, the acclaimed director of Eat Drink Man Woman, Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, was doing when he committed to helm a "mere" superheroic summer action film. The more appropriate question is, what the heck has he done? Because true to its alleged theme, Hulk is the most repressed superhero film ever committed to celluloid. Like Bruce Banner, the scientist whose bottled issues and insecurity explode into a snarling, stupendous personification of rage, Hulk the movie has a visceral summer blockbuster pushed way down deep inside of it, locked up tight. It's the biggest-budgeted, impressively (mis)cast inaction flick ever made.

Relatively unknown Australian actor Eric Bana (Black Hawk Down) plays Banner, or rather Bruce Krenzler, a bland-faced, button-down geek studying the application of "nanomeds" and Gamma radiation in pursuit of a means of self-regeneration, for which oily defense contractor Glenn Talbot (Josh Lucas, oozing country club smarm with a Matthew McConaughey accent) sees all kinds of nefarious uses. It's not a disservice to Bana to say that he convincingly occupies Banner with a likable, regular-guy banality born of emotional aloofness. Of course, that's been a template of screen and written-word scientists since the advent of fiction, so it's actually a little surprising when Banner's colleague and ex-girlfriend, Betty Ross (who, like so many scientists, happens to look just like the gorgeous Jennifer Connelly), actually gives him grief for his distance. Banner, of course, more or less rolls over and takes it, which makes you wish that one, he'd show some backbone, and two, that Bana were given a chance to unleash his expressiveness on less of an empty shell.

Because we never quite understand just what it is Banner -- excuse me, Krenzler -- and Ross are doing, exactly, it's difficult to explain just what happens when, during the middle of an experiment, Bruce bravely puts himself in danger to save a lab technician from...something having to do with gas being piped into a closed space and a big green burst of energy. (Okay, granted, the Hulk's original origin, involving a desert bomb-testing site and the world's dumbest teenager, who drives his jeep onto the site on a dare, is in dire need of an update. But even knowing that Gamma rays play a part in the Hulk's creation, it's impossible to decipher the gobbledygook jargon thrown so recklessly about.) In any case, Banner wakes up in a hospital bed, with a tearful Betty Ross amazed and a little scared that he somehow survived whatever it was that just happened -- by all rights, she sobs, he should be dead. Banner being such a cipher, of course, we're not entirely sure he's not dead, although he claims he's "never felt better."

Whatever. Bana's distressingly underwritten role and the frustratingly murky nature of Banner's incident prove infinitely easier to swallow than Nick Nolte's appearance as a shaggy-haired janitor who can't go anywhere without three pathetic looking dogs in tow, and who turns out to be Bruce's biological father (Krenzler being an adopted name). As it happens, Daddy was also a scientist working in this very field, as the film's stylized, ethereal opening credit sequence has already shown us, and apparently Pop wasn't above experimenting on himself. When the commander of the military base at which he's toiling got wind of this, the elder Banner got the sack. He also got committed to a mental institution for thirty years, but not before he's passed his mutated genes on to his son. And also not before, in a fit of pique, he flips a lot of switches, setting off alarms all around the base and apparently unleashing a Gamma bomb that leaves the base a deserted playground into the present day. Oh, and, uh, inadvertently murdering his wife, because, you know, why not?

Enough backstory. Banner pere, who seems to take his grooming tips from the Unabomber (this explains the famous Nolte mugshot: he was just getting in character!) visits Banner fils and reveals the truth about his past. Turns out Dear ol' Dad is loonier than a bus full of Carrot Top fans, but when Bruce mutates into a giant, green-skinned brute, his story begins to take on some credibility. The appearance of the completely CGI Hulk is the closest the film comes to a highlight, and lays to rest the fears of geeks everywhere that the computer-generated title character would look clunky and artificial. Nothing to worry about on that score: The folks at Industrial Light & Magic have created a breathtakingly lifelike monster, and it's quite a feat.

No, it's everything else about Hulk that proves artificial and lifeless. Soon, in one of the film's most ridiculous moments, Papa Banner unleashes his own Gamma-irradiated dogs on Betty, and the Hulk arrives in time to save the day, only to be drugged and hauled away by Betty's father, General "Thunderbolt" Ross (Sam Elliott) -- the same man who sacked Papa Banner all those years ago, of course. And basically, the rest of the film is a creaky stretch of scenes involving the Hulk breaking out of Ross and Talbot's colorful underground military installation, leaping through the desert, hurling tanks and helicopters around without causing a single casualty, and, an eternity of limp and emotion-free scenes later, slugging it out with Dad, who's also mutated the ability to absorb the properties of whatever he comes into contact with (kinda like second-string Marvel supervillain the Absorbing Man, but I digress).

While the mechanics and pacing of Hulk's turgid plotting are interminable enough, the story wouldn't be such a lethal snooze if we were given any sense of real conflict. We never see Banner actively fighting his more primal impulses in any meaningful way, save for one heroic instance in which he admirably reins himself in to avoid hulking out and giving Talbot a skin sample he can use for his own schemes. We never see him rage against his manipulation, at the hands of his father, or Talbot or General Ross; never see him throw a tantrum about being tricked by Betty, hauled off and locked away by her father, or hunted like an animal by the U.S. military. And if Banner has no emotional stake in how things turn out, why should we? Even the chase scenes, with the Green Goliath leaping across the countryside and getting his mad on by destroying government property, feel flat and hollow. There's just nothing to get worked up about.

Whenever you feel you can't be any more exasperated with its nonsensical happenings or maddeningly, molasses-slow pace, The Hulk manages to find new and creative ways of going horribly wrong. There are of course all those tanks and choppers, of course, which bounce against mountainsides and fall to the desert floor without ever once bursting into flames. There are the tepid and anticlimactic confrontations between father and son and father and daughter. And there's the incomprehensible editing, a series of dizzying, hyperactive split-screen effects (lifted straight from the gimmicky television series 24), which occur at the most puzzling moments (do we need three simultaneous shots of Betty and Talbot talking in a hallway?). This detracts from the few moments, as in the desert battle scenes, where they could be effective; instead, they're distracting and contrived. The intent, obviously, is to mimic the panels-and-borders feel of a comic book. But why, exactly, when nothing else about the film aspires for comic book reality in any way?

Like Banner's supposed to do with his alter ego, The Hulk spends the entire film fighting against its comic book past. That would have been fine, really, if Lee had bothered to replace the comic elements with something, anything else other than a ponderously cerebral anti-comic whose moments of absurdity slide into flashes of foreign art-film pretentiousness. In fighting to have a film about a giant behemoth be taken seriously, in struggling to put his stamp on the legend of the Hulk, Lee creates a far more absurd and comical work than another brainless summer blockbuster would have been. Bana's frustrated potential and the truly impressive CGI effects are brief bright spots, and they each earn a tenth of a decimal point. But neither is enough to rescue The Hulk from its distinction as the most difficult, obtuse and wrong-headed movie, comic book or otherwise, in a long, long time.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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