Dir: Ang Lee. US. 2003. 137 mins.
Ever since he signed on to direct a film of Marvel Comics' The Hulk, it was a puzzle for many to imagine how a film-maker as artistically autonomous as Ang Lee could possibly enhance the rigid formula of summer comic-book blockbuster. But enhance it he has. Indeed, employing all the creative fury he and his writing/producing partner James Schamus could muster, Ang has reinvented it.
The extraordinarily intense, emotionally draining result will polarize audiences. As many who will embrace it for its original approach will reject it as boring or dark. The first hour contains very little other than character interplay and certainly no action. Although employing a ground-breaking visual style, Ang plays these scenes out at a slow-burn pace. Attention-challenged teens used to the breakneck comic-book speed of Daredevil or X2 could be alienated; their bad word-of-mouth could damage the film's longterm prospects. Then again, Ang delivers enough breathtaking action and mind-boggling special effects in the second half to satisfy even the most bloodthirsty goons in the audience, so the lasting impression on leaving the theatre could be a positive one.
Whatever the teen millions tell their friends after they've seen it, openings around the world will be gigantic based on the excitement in the marketplace about the film and Universal's muscular marketing campaign. The Hulk's performance in the following weekends will make the difference between a major hit and an enormous one. And therein lies the question: will mass audiences respond to bravura film-making or just decide that they would prefer more elongated music videos a la 2 Fast 2 Furious. Universal is releasing the film quickly in Asia followed by key European territories in July and Japan and Italy in August. The international response to the film's intensity will be less equivocal, and Hulk will post some huge international numbers.
Before we get to the first transformation from Bruce Banner to Hulk, Ang sets up his handful of characters almost as if in a chamber piece. Excepting the occasional flashback to inform us of Banner's childhood and bizarre genetic lineage, the drama takes place almost exclusively in small, claustrophobic rooms in the San Francisco scientific research facility where he works.
The emotionally repressed Banner (Bana) has just split up with his girlfriend and workmate Betty Ross (Connelly). Betty was getting frustrated with his restraint in love and obsession with their work which involves the use of gamma rays in healing animal wounds. Banner's past is a complicated one - he was adopted as a young child - and Betty thinks that he should look into finding his real parents to unlock some of his emotions.
What Bruce doesn't know - and we do, from the credit sequence - is that his father David was also a master scientist who had experimented on himself by injecting mutated animal genes. When his wife, Bruce's mother, became pregnant, the baby Bruce inherited this altered DNA.
This DNA which Bruce possesses is activated when he is accidentally exposed to gamma radiation at work. His deranged father David (Nolte), meanwhile, has taken a job at the lab as a janitor to eye his son's work and while Bruce is recuperating from the accident, he confronts him with his identity.
Confused at these revelations and furious at the interference in his work of Betty's father - general "Thunderbolt" Ross (Elliot) - and rival researcher Glenn Talbot (Lucas), Bruce one night explodes with rage and transforms into the Hulk who lays waste to the lab and rampages through his own house. Banner is quickly captured by Ross and his men and removed to an underground facility in the desert but, as they soon discover, Hulk is more powerful than they imagined.
Ang's infuses the material with its own unsettling mood. Using split screen, multiple takes and myriad angles, he creates a unique visual language, commensurate with a comic book, but much more sophisticated and an essential ingredient in building the sense of impending doom.
The Hulk himself is a tragic figure who is so effectively rendered in CGI, often in facial close-up, by Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) that he is arguably the first humanized digital character in a movie to be considered a character (The Two Towers' Gollum was an exact rendering of actor Andy Serkis). As he tears across the desert lands of the US - not too far removed in visual terms from the Gobi desert of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - battling the might of the US army, the spectacle is mythic in its grandeur and pathos. While Hulk does dance across the Golden Gate Bridge, Ang for the most part keeps the action against open terrain, mixing up different concepts of nature so that the army helicopters often feel more alien than the green monster himself.
The director is supported by a note-perfect cast - the charismatic Bana gives his almost-namesake Banner an inner turmoil that resonates when he has become an ILM beast, Connelly is intelligent and compelling as Betty whose own desire to protect Bruce struggles with her fear of his destructive altar ego, while Nolte is a disturbing villain whose genuine love for his son gives him a dimension you'd never see in the Green Goblin.
Indeed most fascinating of all in the provocative screenplay by John Turman and Michael France, in a clear collaboration with the ultra-intellectual Schamus, is Banner's battle with his own genetic makeup. It's not so much the sins of the father as the genes of the father which he must confront and accept. In the dizzying final confrontation between father and son, Banner is battling neither evil nor rage, but the very DNA of which he is composed. It's a tangled web that even Spiderman would have a hard time unravelling.
Prod cos: Valhalla Motion Pictures, Good Machine in association with Marvel Enterprises
Worldwide dist: Universal Pictures/UIP
Exec prods: Stan Lee, Kevin Feige
Prods: Gale Anne Hurd, Avi Arad, James Schamus, Larry Franco
Scr: John Turman & Michael France and James Schamus, from a story by Schamus
DoP: Frederick Elmes
Prod des: Rick Heinrichs
Ed: Tim Squyres
Music: Danny Elfman
Main cast: Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Sam Elliott, Josh Lucas, Nick Nolte, Paul Kersey, Celia Weston