A Sleeping Monster 

Ang Lee’s frustrating Hulk adaptation has some of the best filmmaking of the year...and some of the dullest

Ang Lee’s frustrating Hulk adaptation has some of the best filmmaking of the year...and some of the dullest

Hulk

Dir.: Ang Lee

PG-13, 137 min.

Now showing at area theaters

The telling difference between the comic book version of The Hulk and the Ang Lee movie Hulk is that while Marvel Comics writer/editor Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby gave their misfit monster green skin and purple pants because those colors stand out on newsprint, Ang Lee’s movie has a green and purple color scheme because that’s what the comics had. The director and his screenwriting partner James Schamus (with Marvel-appointed co-writers John Turman and Michael France) understand on a surface level that Hulk is less a superhero than a wandering adventurer, hounded into action and rarely in control. But for long stretches, their movie has the dry taste of an abstract intellectual exercise; Ang Lee doesn’t seem to connect fully with the premise the way that Sam Raimi connected with Marvel’s Spider-Man or the Marvel-esque Darkman.

Lee surely doesn’t feel this material the way he felt his last film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which had the director transforming the kung fu epics he loved as a boy into a profound and exciting “ultimate” kung fu movie, enriched by themes of ambiguous evil and misguided restraint. Hulk warily circles an assortment of themes, unsure (until the end) which should rightfully break through and unfold fully. Will it be a movie about parents and children, echoing Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman and The Ice Storm? Is it about man’s fruitless attempts to overcome the limits of nature, or how the military turns every tool into a weapon, or how the thin veneer of human civility can become deeply cracked?

Mostly, at first, it’s about broken people acting hurt. Eric Bana plays the reserved scientist Bruce Banner—the man who carries the rampaging Hulk within his genes—as an emotionless trauma victim, while Jennifer Connelly’s portrayal of Banner’s ex-girlfriend Betty Ross is pitched below a whisper. The actors playing their parents make all the noise. Nick Nolte is crackpot David Banner, obsessed with finding the electrochemical secret of human cell regeneration, while Sam Elliot is Gen. “Thunderbolt” Ross, who hates the Banners for reasons he won’t reveal.

The whole movie tends toward reticence. After a lengthy intro that establishes the troubled relationship between David and Bruce, Hulk turns into an extended mad scientist riff, with endless footage of small creatures being subjected to laboratory tests. Lee dresses this stuff up with an innovative use of split screens, which isn’t quite the equivalent of a comics panel layout, as some have claimed, but is nonetheless striking. Still, the visual trickery can’t make up for the way the filmmakers belabor a fairly meaningless fragment of backstory while pretending that the information is really important. Just as frustrating, Lee and company keep building up to what the audience thinks will be the first appearance of the title character, only to dissolve repeatedly to more shots of computer screens and bubbling beakers.

Then suddenly, with 45 minutes to go, Hulk hits a winning stride. The sterile chitchat and shadowy shots of the beast disappear, replaced by an extended daylight desert battle between the Hulk and the U.S. Army that is the best realization of comic book action ever to appear on a movie screen. Lee seems to regain interest in what he’s doing, and between the shots of an impressively rendered CGI Hulk swinging tanks over his head, the director pauses to study the way a tank tread looks when it’s running through sand, or the way low-flying choppers make ripples in a placid canyon creek. He grounds mammoth battle scenes in simple, eye-catching detail.

The themes start to come together too, as Hulk returns to the concepts of cruel family legacies and slippery-slope morality that have been at the center of Lee’s best work (including the underrated Ride With the Devil). When David Banner reenters his son’s life and starts rambling on about sucking the Hulk power out of him, Lee at last zeroes in on the precise harmony of good and evil that gets his creativity humming.

Then the movie ends, and though it ends on a high note, some audience members may not be willing to accept 45 minutes of some of the best moviemaking of the year as a consequence of having to sit through 90 minutes of some of the dullest (however noble the attempt). It takes until Hulk is almost over for Lee to loosen up and realize what his Marvel Comics forbears already knew: that pictures of a big green monster punching away at a skyrocketing jet make their own meaning.

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