This has been a big year for movie adaptations of comic books. We had Daredevil in February, X2: X-Men United in May, and now Hulk. For comic book aficionados like myself, this is practically a dream come true (or it would be if someone could get the Batman franchise back up and running again). In the scheme of things, Hulk is a solid effort, albeit one based on what I always felt was one of the less interesting characters in the Marvel pantheon.
Eric Bana (Black Hawk Down) plays Bruce Banner, a mild-mannered scientist working on genetic technology experiments with colleague and former flame Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly). What Bruce doesn’t know is that prior to his birth, his military scientist father David (Nick Nolte) used himself as a guinea pig in a genetic mutation experiment. For this unapproved test, David was removed from his position and locked away for 30 years by Gen. Ross (Sam Elliot), who also happens to be Betty’s father. The damage was done, though; some of the genetic mutation was passed along to the newborn Bruce. Something else important happened around that time, although Bruce has repressed that memory and can’t get it back.
During a lab accident, Bruce is hit with a massive dose of gamma radiation that interacts with his already mutated genes. Somehow he survives, with one notable change: when he gets mad, he bulks up into a muscular green beast. As Hulk, he can inflict powerful damage on anyone or anything, and he can jump for miles.
This accident brings out several foes for Bruce/Hulk. One is Glenn Talbot (Josh Lucas), who was already trying to convince Bruce and Betty that their research can be used to create an army of super-soldiers capable of healing themselves during battle. He wants to get some samples of Hulk’s DNA for further study. Another foe is Gen. Ross, who knows all about Bruce’s past and doesn’t want his daughter associating with anyone even remotely related to David Banner. Finally, there’s David himself, who appears and starts following his son around. After being locked away for 30 years, he wants to finally see the full effects of his research. David is a particular nuisance because he views Bruce more as a test subject than as a son; he is not above intentionally provoking Bruce’s anger just to watch what happens.
Storywise, Hulk is one of the more ambitious and intelligent of the comic book adaptations. One would expect no less from director Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and writing/producing partner James Schamus. They don’t just create a story about a guy who turns into a creature when he’s mad; instead, they explore how the relationships of the various characters are affected by Bruce’s transformation into something else. Some of the characters have pure motives; others operate under more selfish intentions. There’s a really good sense of storytelling at work here. Audience members looking strictly for visceral thrills may be somewhat disappointed, but those who admire smart, complex plots will be delighted. Hulk is probably the first comic book movie that could play to arthouse audiences as well as in mainstream multiplexes.
Ang Lee has cast the film beautifully. Eric Bana makes an effective Bruce Banner. He hits the right note of being both afraid of and empowered by his alter ego. Jennifer Connelly has what would typically be the generic “girlfriend” role, but the script makes Betty an essential character, and the actress brings a much-needed humanity to the part. Best of all is Nick Nolte, who gives a brilliant Method-style performance as the vengeful David Banner. Ranting and raving like a madman genius pushed to the edge, Nolte electrifies the screen every time he walks into the frame. This is great work from him; is it too optimistic to wonder if the academy will recognize his performance as Oscar-worthy?
I should address the CGI effects used to create the Hulk. After a rough-cut of the movie was shown to test audiences, bad buzz started floating around the internet. It seems that some people thought the effects were cheesy. Time to set the record straight: the effects are actually very good in their completed state. Any fool should know that the Hulk is not going to look “realistic.” How can he when he’s not real at all? The character is supposed to look somewhat otherworldly. We are to be as awestruck by the sight of him as the people in the movie are. The effects accomplish this task perfectly. I really bought into the idea that I was looking at some strange, physically perplexing creature. The fact that Ang Lee frequently uses different split screen techniques to make the film physically look like a comic book is further evidence that he wants the Hulk to resemble a Marvel comic come to life.
Hulk appears mainly for the action scenes, which I found quite enjoyable. In particular, I liked a desert battle during which Hulk grabs a tank and throws it around like a frisbee. There’s another great scene set around the Golden Gate bridge that was very original as well. Perhaps most memorable is a fight between the Hulk and three dogs who have similarly been pumped up. Watching the big green guy go into death-match mode with the world’s most buff french poodle is a real kick. The action is exciting and fun, and best of all it generally serves the story. There’s almost always a human element present in the action scenes.
The only limitation Hulk has for me is inherent in the character himself. As I said, I always thought the Hulk was one of the less interesting superheroes. He gets muscular and green when he’s mad, and he doesn’t really say all that much. My favorites are the ones who are so psychologically damaged that they feel the need to put on costumes and prowl the city fighting crime by night. Batman, Wolverine, and Daredevil all fall into that category, and so does Spiderman to some extent. That said, I still like the Hulk – he’s just more interesting visually and conceptually than he is as a personality. Nevertheless, Hulk is a well-done and entertaining movie. It approaches the material with a sense of intelligence which – as comic book fans all know – is always a welcome thing.
( out of four)
Hulk is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some disturbing images and brief partial nudity. The running time is 2 hours and 17 minutes.
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