Hulk (2003)

Hulk first published by Movie Gazette

Ang Lee is a highly adaptable director. After moving from a genteel English period adaptation (Sense and Sensbility) to an examination of alienation in 1970s America (The Ice Storm) to a Civil War epic (Ride with the Devil) to a Chinese stunt-wire kungfu extravaganza (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), it somehow seemed almost inevitable that he would eventually turn his hand to a contemporary film about a big green hero with a temper.

Take a man whose DNA has been combined with that of a jellyfish, a starfish and a lizard, expose him to a lethal dose of gamma rays, and what you get is a 138-minute hulking monster of a box office smash hit about a hulking monster who likes to smash and hit. Yet while Hulk has a strong family resemblance to the Marvel comic created by Stan Lee and to the TV series starring Lou Ferrigno (and both Lee and Ferrigno have early cameos here as security guards), Ang Lee (no relation to) lets its basic genetic makeup evolve in some new directions.

Hulk is, like its protagonist Bruce Banner (Eric Bana, again no relation), something of a schizophrenic hybrid. As with all contemporary superhero films, it is laden with spectacular effects and action sequences on a monumental scale – but there is almost a full hour of narrative build-up before the muscle-bound mayhem first kicks in. This careful attention to character and story makes Hulk a surprisingly adult experience – even though its ubiquitous merchandising seems targeted almost exclusively at young children, who may prove less patient at the lengthy delay in the appearance of green computer-generated rampaging.

The film’s themes are also surprisingly adult. Despite all the foreign material in Bruce’s genetic makeup, his Jekyll-and-Hyde personality is split not so much between human and beast as between the loving compassion which he has inherited from his mother (and which love interest Betty Ross, played by Jennifer Connelly, brings out in him) and the maniacal fury bequeathed to him by his father (Nick Nolte), so that this comicbook tale is transformed into an Oedipal allegory, climaxing with a battle not between Bruce and himself, but between Bruce and his father. The film is also full of explosions in city streets, high-tech military hardware in the desert, and resonant phrases like ‘collateral damage’, all suggesting a link between the destructive male anger which the film explores, and the explosive events surrounding 9/11 and its aftermath (as Bush Jr. works through his own daddy issues). Evidently the hulk, that iconic lummox of 1970s TV, has grown up to be a figure for our own times.

While the hero of Hulk lumbers along with all the subtlety of a steamroller, the acting does not, and the characters are all (perhaps with the exception of leering antagonist Talbot, played by Josh Lucas) allowed to develop beyond mere cartoonish dimensions. Multiple moving frames and rapid dissolves give Hulk a unique look, splicing its comicbook origins to something altogether more cinematic, and enabling Lee to present the story’s background material with great economy. The hulk itself looks as realistic as a neon-green giant can, and yes, he still wears purple trousers that rip but do not fall off.

In fact, the only thing really disappointing in Hulk is the busy climactic battle, which is on such an elemental scale that it becomes all too easy to lose track of, and interest in, what is supposed to be going on. Otherwise this is a beautifully split-screened, smart-dumb comic superhero adaptation, merging the original’s DNA with some post-9/11 psychology to create a monumental monster of a movie.

Strap: You wouldn’t like Bruce Banner when he’s angry, but you might like ‘Hulk’ when it’s Ang Lee.

Anton Bitel