- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 19, 2003

First, the bad news. “Hulk” is too long. It’s convoluted. The acting is spotty. Worst of all, the computer-generated Hulk isn’t believable for a second.

In fact, the Hulk himself, an inorganic, clumsy-looking illusion of ones and zeroes, is kind of risible. When he flexes those big green muscles and goes “Arrrggghhh,” you’re likely to respond, “Hahahaha.”

And that’s a shame.

Director Ang Lee, whose “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was an international sensation and worthy Oscar winner, tried mightily to do something different with “Hulk,” the creation of Marvel Comics writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby.

“Spider-Man” raised the bar for big-screen superhero adaptations, and Mr. Lee clearly felt that movie’s $821 million-grossing presence.

If it had been more modest about its sci-fi philosophizing, “Hulk” had the potential to be smart; its action sequences aren’t anything to ogle, but they’re occasionally thrilling; it’s even a little edgy at times.

Ultimately, though, it’s neither smart nor great spectacle.

I lied, then. There really is no good news. When an Oscar-winning director spends a reported $150 million, I expect better than this.

The trouble with “Hulk” manifests itself from the get-go. After a creepy title sequence depicting microscopic globs of cells in petri dishes, the movie rushes through a thready patchwork of crisscrossing stories (the product of several writers) that trace back to a desert Army base in 1966.

Now, trust me when I say I’m not going to give anything away; everything that follows is established — or should have been; but more on that in a minute — in the early going.

In the first few reels, we meet a young Dr. David Banner (played at first by Paul Kersey) conducting experiments on starfish that promise to yield an astounding battlefield application: indestructible soldiers whose wounds heal automatically.

When a skeptical Army general named Ross (played initially by Todd Tesen) shuts down the operation, Banner secretly experiments on himself, passing on his altered genes to a son, Bruce.

Ah, but wait. I’ve just done the screenwriters’ job for them. I hate doing that, because they don’t pay me.

That last plot nugget, an essential piece of information, isn’t made clear until later, fogging up some of the back story that preceded it. In one inexplicable scene, the increasingly deranged Banner is shown injecting something into his son.

Was he experimenting on Bruce, too? Was it an antidote?

We’ll never know because “Hulk” shows more than it tells, a foolish thing to do for a movie aimed at younger audiences.

Things get even more muddled when the movie jerks forward to the present, introducing a new Dr. Banner (Nick Nolte, in skanky street-person mug-shot mode), a new Gen. Ross (Sam Elliott) and not one but two more Bruces: a teenager (Mike Erwin) living in a foster home and, finally, the adult (Eric Bana), working as a researcher in a Berkeley University lab in the same field his father helped pioneer.

OK, that’s seven actors playing three characters, and the movie hasn’t even finished clearing its throat yet.

We make lots of trips back to the ‘60s, where we’re shown recurring images of a nuclear explosion that didn’t seem to harm anybody who was near it.

Plus, we get to see intimations of the traumatic event that prompted young Bruce’s placement in a foster home. When we finally get to see what all the flashback fuss was about, once again, we get a slipshod explanation that confuses more than it illuminates.

Mr. Bana’s Bruce Banner is a steely introvert who’s bad at relationships. When we first encounter him, he and research partner Betty Ross (a stunning Jennifer Connelly), estranged daughter of the general, have just ended a romance.

As he did as a child, Bruce also experiences severely vivid nightmares, during one of which we glimpse a shadowy Hulk.

Miss Connelly is by far the more capable of the pair; the Oscar winner (for her role in “A Beautiful Mind”) has the good fortune of playing a well-drawn character, and she makes the most of it.

Mr. Bana, a largely unknown Australian import, isn’t so impressive. The grrr-faces he makes when metamorphosing into the big green beast are not the least bit menacing. They look more like the prelude to a toddler’s foot-stomping tantrum.

And did I mention the useless gimmickry Mr. Lee seems to find so fascinating? Thinking that he’s juicing up the tension, the director constantly breaks the action into multiple, dissolving split screens, when all he’s really doing is … breaking the action into multiple, dissolving split screens.

Case in point: When a sedated Bruce Banner is being transported to an underground military installation where a greedy defense contractor (nice guy Josh Lucas, giving villainy a college try) tries to extract the Hulk genes for money, Mr. Lee shows the helicopter trip across the desert from every conceivable angle.

I couldn’t help thinking: “Dude, it’s just a ride on a helicopter; it ain’t that fascinating to watch.”

The most exhausting thing about “Hulk,” though, is the phony Greek angst with which it weighs down Bruce Banner. In the original telling in both the comic book and the “Incredible Hulk” TV series, Bruce’s Hulk-ness comes from an accidental exposure to gamma rays.

The gamma ray accident shows up here, too, but the new twist is the genetic component: The radiation merely unleashes the latent monster in Bruce Banner.

One or the other malady would have been fine, right? So why the DNA factor?

Maybe it’s because genes are cool nowadays. The genome has replaced Marxism and Freudianism as the mother of all deterministic explanations, a unified theory of everything under the sun.

Bruce Banner doesn’t morph into the Hulk just because he loses his temper; no, the Hulk busts out and destroys everything in his path because Bruce is a memory-repressing, an emotionally wounded bag of Oedipal conflicts.

If that’s not enough psycho-fakery, “Hulk” lets pere Banner loose on a mad-science tirade about how we humans are unnecessarily bound by our natures and our weak and sickly religions, a pale justification for the bad doctor’s grotesque experiments.

Good grief.

Coming from Mr. Nolte, it’s too much to swallow.

So, alas, is “Hulk.

**

TITLE: “Hulk”

RATING: PG-13 (Sci-fi action violence; disturbing images; brief nudity)

CREDITS: Directed by Ang Lee. Produced by Avi Arad, Larry J. Franco, Gale Anne Hurd and James Schamus. Story by Mr. Schamus, based on a Marvel Comics character created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. Screenplay by John Turman, Michael France and Mr. Schamus. Cinematography by Frederick Elmes. Original music by Danny Elfman.

RUNNING TIME: 138 minutes.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide