After the announcement that the acclaimed director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain was going to tackle his first summer blocker with an adaptation of Marvel’s resident screaming rage monster, the jokes practically wrote themselves.
“Don’t make me Ang Lee, you wouldn’t like me when I’m Ang Lee.” was the mirth inducing winner, but after Hulk finally smashed into cinemas, the joke wasn’t so much funny as prophetic plea by the movie itself if you added a well-placed comma… e.g “Don’t make me, Ang Lee.”. You see, I told you it writes itself.
And yet while a lot of flack leveled at the film is fairly justified, maybe it’s time to take another glance at this malformed beast and award it some credit where it’s actually due.
Dr. Bruce Banner is a nervy bag of conflicting emotions masquerading as a respected scientist; we know this because he’s irresponsibly mocked for wearing a bicycle helmet like the stupid safety nerd we’re supposed to think he is. What doesn’t help matters much is his stilted relationship with fellow boffin, Betty Ross who’s overbearing father is a military general overseeing their experiments in gamma radiation.
Of course, this being a Marvel joint, the safety protocols go right out of the window when Bruce is doused in what should be a fatal dose of radiation during a lab accident but seems to have no noticable adverse effects, however deep within him, thanks to some questionable tinkering by his long lost scientist father (everyone around here is a fucking scientist!), a powerful chemical reaction is unlocked deep within him and is more than ready to bubble to the surface the second Banner’s stress levels creep into the red.
If the presence of creepo Major Glen Talbot making moves on his work and Betty isn’t enough to tip Bruce over the edge then the resurfacing of his super-sinister estranged father does, causing Banner’s rage issues to explode and results in a spectacular transformation into a hulking, super strong beast that rampages with an uncontrollable lack of respect for insurance rates.
Trying to desperately keep a lid on his destructive alter ego, Banner finds himself in the short-tempered cross hairs of both General Ross, who wants to expunge this jade beserker stall costs, and his own father, who wants to harness Bruce’s power for his own ends in order to transcend his own humanity. Succeeding in turning himself into a being able to absorb the properties of various minerals around him, he aims to leech the regenerative properties out of Banner but first he has to wait his turn as the Hulk battles the military all over the desert on a path back to Betty in San Francisco.
Can Banner withstand, not only his family’s twisted past but also his own fucked up DNA to find peace in himself before he pounds the nearest populated area into gravel or will he fall before the plots and plans of men just as angry and destructive as himself?
I’ve mentioned that Hulk is somewhat unfairly maligned but that’s not to say it doesn’t earn some of the hate, so I guess that’s where we’ll start. The first issue is the wildly inconsistent tone forced on proceedings presumably by the fact that Ang Lee is struggling to reconcile his big ideas and emotional metaphors with the fact that the rules of a massive summer blockbuster demand that shit has to blow up or fall over fairly often. Pretty frequently the movie get’s lost in it’s weighty themes of emotional abuse, Freudian theory and abandonment, then jerks into life like a child caught napping in class and over compensates with a bonkers action scene where Banner’s Hulky alter ego batters the shit out of a trio of gamma mutated dogs. The combination of psychological musing and gonzo set pieces becomes a little dizzying and starts to become as off putting as a monstrous, giant, malformed, killer poodle. Another issue is the messing around of the Hulk’s origin which chooses to play fast and loose with the character’s abilities and powers – now, while this isn’t too much of a crime as some believe, having the Hulk grow ever larger the angrier he gets means that the viridescent brute ends up around twenty feet tall by the films end and feels too far a stretch to emotionally connect this literal giant back to the actor who plays him. Lee insists on grabbing the emotional core of the film and chooses to vigorously shake the life out of it until it fittingly loses it’s mind, turns a fetching shade of emerald and goes absolutely mental bu as admirable as all this fleshing out of these concepts are on such a big scale, any sense of fun takes a big hit and sometimes you’d wish that Hulk would just… well, smash more.
When he does, however, it’s pretty fun, with the green meanie suplexing helicopters and hurling tanks around like an Olympic hammer thrower, but some of the CGI, while expressive, hasn’t particularly dated that well and pulls you out of the film a bit – it certainly doesn’t help that the Hulk distractingly resembles a thick necked Brendon Fraiser on frequent occasions.
The cast is excellent, with the amusing casting of Eric Bana (Bana plays Banner!) giving us an intense character study that’s solid, if a little TOO serious for it’s own good but Jennifer Connelly’s warm portrayal as Betty manages to balance this, even when it’s obvious she’s having to emote to a green screen or a ping pong ball on a stick. Stealing the show, however, are the twin, unfeasibly gravelly voiced performances of Sam Elliot as permanently pissed General Ross and Nick Nolte as Banner’s deranged dad whose ravaged vocal chords will threaten to blow out the bass on whatever speaker system you have set up at home.
It’s also worth mentioning that even though this is Ang Lee’s first mega-bugeted outing, he’s not afraid to put his own personal stamp on things be it an intriging use of sets (Bruce’s verbal showdown with his father is set against a black backdrop on a stage with two chairs and looks for all the world like the minimalist set of an off-Broadway play) or the phenomenal editing style which batters you with enough variations on the split screen format that you feel you’re actually flipping through the pages of a comic.
In the end though, thanks to it’s decision to place talking over smashing and an ending that’s virtually impossible to work out what the hell is happening, Hulk is seen as something of a failure which (rather aptly considering the duality of it’s central character) is both hugely understandable and terribly unfair.
Definitely not the strongest there is but hardly puny either, this movie outing is best described by another quote from comic’s jade giant.
“Hulk is Hulk…”