No contemporary filmmaker has taken a comicbook character more seriously than Ang Lee takes “Hulk.” A seriously brooding psychological drama for much of its somewhat overlong running time, this impeccably crafted piece of megabuck fantasy storytelling aims to pull off the tricky feat of significantly reworking the superhero format while still providing the expected tentpole-type entertainment thrills for the international masses. Except for the ending, there is nothing here to confuse or confound even early-teen viewers, but it is very difficult to guess whether the “Spider-Man” crowd will warm to this emotionally cool yet anguished tale of dual Oedipal conflicts of Greek-tragedy stature. After a brawny B.O. opening, anything is possible, although heavy repeat business looks doubtful.
After this most surprising leap in an enterprising career that has taken him from his native Taiwan to Victorian England for “Sense and Sensibility,” the American East for “The Ice Storm,” the Civil War for “Ride With the Devil” and the China of popular imagination in his blockbuster “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” Lee will never be accused of being predictable. And yet Lee and his habitual producer and screenwriter James Schamus, working this time from credited previous drafts by John Turman and Michael France, have used the Marvel comic, launched in 1962 and most famously incarnated by “The Incredible Hulk” TV series from 1978-82, as a means to explore such weighty issues as the search for one’s true identity, the struggle of an everyday personality with a dark inner self, father-child legacies, repressed memories, lost love and transformative anger.
Can a picture that swings on the notion of a geeky scientist becoming an indomitable muscle-bound giant when provoked support all these grand themes and heavy thinking? Yes and no. There are times when the film’s exceedingly elegant way of conveying complicated information about genetic mutations, radioactive exposure, wounding personal history and the motivations for primal rage are genuinely expressive and worth taking seriously. The dialogue and acting also are on a level not normally encountered in pictures about freaks of nature who swat bullets away like flies and chew the tips off explosive rockets before flinging them back at the helicopters that launched them.
But while Stan Lee’s acknowledged inspirations for Hulk were “Frankenstein” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” the most relevant cinematic reference for Ang Lee’s film is “King Kong,” given the unachievable love story and the poignant reaction being solicited by the impossibility of the Hulk finding a place in the world and by the relentlessness with which the military attacks him, particularly from the air. “Hulk” — the movie’s also called “The Hulk” but not in the opening credits — proves absorbing in some areas that could not easily have been anticipated, but on the most ambitious level of emotional resonance and “Kong”-like tragedy, it fails, mostly because of the inescapably cartoon-like figure at its center but also because it refuses, in the end, to be a tragedy.
In the first of several exquisitely wrought montage sequences, which like other sections of the film make liberal and creative use of split-screen techniques, the 1966-set opening delineates the genetic experiments of a military scientist named David Banner, his self-injection with untested material and his unintentional passing along of corrupted DNA to his son Bruce before disappearing.
Today, Bruce (Eric Bana) is a brilliant young scientist in nuclear biotechnology at Berkeley who’s just been dumped by lovely fellow brain and research partner Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly) for being too emotionally distant. Knowing they’re on the verge of a breakthrough in the area of immediate animal cell regeneration, and seeing money and power looming, venal corporate creep Glenn Talbot (Josh Lucas) puts the moves on the two to sell out — first courteously, then threateningly, to the point that Betty seeks the counsel of her long-estranged father, five-star General “Thunderbolt” Ross (Sam Elliott), the original emotionally distant man in her life.
At the same time, Bruce has so robustly survived a lab accident that should have killed him that he is approached by his long-lost father, David (Nick Nolte), a weirdo with the countenance of a wolf man who’s been nosing about under cover of his job as janitor. “Of course you’re flesh and blood, but you’re something else too,” David ominously informs before being chased away by the young man. Bruce soon discovers the truth of Dad’s words when, upon next flying into a rage, he turns into a seriously pumped green giant, destroys the lab, rams up through the ceiling and bounds off the roof.
In short order, intense conflicts are running in every direction. When Talbot gets tough with Bruce, the latter turns green again and trashes him before heading off to save Betty from some mad attack dogs sent by crazy David, who was locked up 30 years back by none other than Betty’s father. Betty, meanwhile, has been having dreams that evoke the childhood memories blocked out by Bruce, who begins to enjoy his moments of being bigger and stronger than anyone else on earth but increasingly needs to know how he got that way.
Much of the early going consists of quietly dramatic scenes between Bruce and Betty and sometimes others, and while there is visual pop to some of the lab sequences, Lee has essentially dispensed with the sort of teaser scenes — such as Peter Parker’s high school power antics in “Spider-Man” — designed to keep eager audiences interested until it’s time for the big effects. Approach, while moderately daring by today’s diminished standards, is actually in line with that taken by Universal horror pictures dating back to the beginning of the sound era, when much scientific and some personal talk generally preceded the meaty main course.
Script’s sensible structure leads Bruce on the path to self-discovery in the second half, just as it places him, Kong-like, in the hands of greedy exploiters who subdue and momentarily confine him before he bursts out in an ultimate effort of rebellion to take on everything General Ross can throw at him.
In beautifully executed interludes, Hulk first strides, then hops like a giant flea across the spectacular rocks of southern Utah, is assaulted by helicopter gunships and tanks he treats like so many child’s toys, arrives home in the Bay Area to climb to the top of a fog-enshrouded Golden Gate Bridge and, spectacularly, to jump a ride on the back of a fighter jet that soars to the edge of space in an effort to do him in; even the subsequent plunge into the San Francisco Bay doesn’t hurt Hulk. The visualization of these events, achieved by a variety of means, is superb.
Again like Kong, Hulk is reduced to mortal status by the woman he loves, but the cataclysmic climax, along with the tonally inconsistent coda, lacks the precision of effect of most of what’s come before and ends things on a relatively flat note.
Worse, however, is the fact that, as the film’s ultimate goal comes into view, its lack of heart and genuine tragic grandeur — which were triumphantly abundant in “King Kong” — emerges as a crucial shortcoming. All along, the Hulk figure elicits an ambivalent reaction at best; the connection between Bana’s introspective Bruce and the elaborately detailed CGI figure presented as his alter ego never comes across definitively, so that in the final stretches, once Hulk has dispatched his greatest enemy, Talbot, it’s hard to be too concerned for the fate of this odd hero, who is, let’s face it, still an obvious special effect amidst otherwise real individuals.
“Hulk” is, in the end, a noble, shrewd, skillful but still thwarted try at upgrading one of the preferred genres of the moment and of respecting the intelligence of the audience more than is the norm with popular entertainments these days. Helping the cause are the actors — Bana, Nolte, Lucas and particularly Connelly and Elliott — who clearly take their work as seriously as did the thesps in, say, “The Ice Storm,” without quite the textual heft and complexity to support them.
Pic is technically vibrant and resourceful, from the exceptional effects and juggling of screen panels and formats to the ace lensing, production design and sound work. Danny Elfman’s fluid, mood-changing score underlines nearly every scene.