As a comic book, Stan Lee’s The Hulk is pure pulpy trash: Frankenstein meets Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, seasoned with a dollop of pop Freud. A fifteen foot tall green behemoth of rage and aggression, Hulk is the return of the repressed times ten, a crude adolescent fantasy of uncontainable power.
Ang Lee’s film version is clever, formally inventive and so respectful of its source material that it’s dead on the screen. The Hulk replicates the look and feel of a comic book with dazzling split screens, boldly corny wipes and freewheeling editing that ignores the carefully articulated geography of screen space we expect in Hollywood in favor of the cartoonist’s scattershot perspectives and emphatic dissection of action. Yet for all the visual extravagance, there’s none of the lurid, campy energy that a story this silly demands.
Lee is a thoughtful director, at his best in films like The Ice Storm and Eat, Drink, Man, Woman – subtle chamber pieces with complexly rendered characters and drama underscored with wry wit. His good taste doesn’t serve him as well in action films. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was genteel pulp, a Hong Kong swordplay epic crammed with stuffy art direction and aimed at audiences uncomfortable with the cheesy hyperbole of Tsui Hark and John Woo. The Hulk follows the same strategy of middlebrow inflation, taking a ludicrous story and treating it less as a loopy thrill ride – imagine what the young DePalma could have done with this material – than as something significant.
Of course, Stan Lee’s comics had pretensions: his superheroes were more complex than most, and grappled with real issues. This, however, meant they had two dimensions instead of just one, and the philosophizing was aimed at nine year olds. The film’s air of seriousness comes straight from the source material, but what was ridiculous splashed on the page becomes doubly so when spoken aloud.
Eric Bana plays Bruce Banner, a research geneticist on the verge of a breakthrough in the instant regeneration of wounded flesh. His colleague and ex-girlfriend, Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly), is the daughter of the Army General (Sam Elliott) who had Banner’s father (Nick Nolte) put away decades earlier when he began conducting experiments on human subjects – first himself, then Bruce, who was born carrying the mutations wrought by his father’s experiments. Betty’s previous beau (Josh Lucas) is a corporate thug willing to do anything to acquire the new technology. When a lab accident fuses Banner’s experiments with his damaged genes, the rage he routinely represses finds an outlet. When angry, he’s now transformed into the Hulk, a towering green creature of pure id that destroys everything in its path until his fury abates.
Since Lee plays the story straight, the opening third is interminable. The characters are drawn so broadly that there’s nothing to learn about them after their first scene, and the actors deliver thorny clumps of exposition – lines that would barely play as word balloons – with absolute sincerity. Saddled with flat, coy jokes, teary recriminations and yelling matches with her father, Connelly gets the worst of it. She struggles to make something of her role, and succeeds in communicating the strain. Nolte and Elliott fare better: playing one note, they both opt for playing it really loud. By the end, when Nolte has shifted gears from simply nuts to full-blown mania, he offers a glimpse of how much fun the film could’ve been if it had been pitched at that level of intense absurdity from the start.
It’s only when Banner finally turns green and starts to break things that the movie comes to life, and the plodding opening begins to feel like a setup: the Hulk’s raging demolition is as liberating for the audience as it is for the repressed scientist. Like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, once the action gets going, that’s all there is – the computer generated main character bashes his way from scene to scene, taking on mutant animals, tanks and helicopters in round after round of well-crafted mayhem. In Spider-Man, the shift to fight scenes was a disappointment after the charm of the opening half. Here it’s a relief. All pretensions are blown away by the wit and invention of the spectacle, and only those actors willing to leave teeth marks on the scenery are encouraged to speak.
Lee has a gift for adaptation; he’s done well by Jane Austen and Rick Moody, among others. It’s in this last hour that he finally captures what was exhilarating about the comic books he’s working from. The Hulk ends less as a movie than a video game scaled for the big screen. It’s silly not because it’s overreaching but because a movie about a big green guy smashing stuff should be stupid if it’s going to be any fun at all.