Hulk (2003) / Sci Fi-Drama

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence, disturbing images and brief nudity                Running Time: 138 min.

Cast: Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Sam Elliott, Nick Nolte, Josh Lucas, Lou Ferrigno (cameo), Stan Lee (cameo)
Director:  Ang Lee
Screenplay: John Turman, Michael France, James Schamus (based on the comic book, "The Incredible Hulk", created by Stan Lee and James Kirby)

Review published June 10, 2003

"You're making me angry.  You wouldn't like me when I'm angry."

Oh yes, we would, Bruce!  It's about the only time we do like you, as without the few scenes where we get to see "Hulk smash," this would have been the most bloated, boring movie ever to have been graced with $120 million dollar budget.

I must admit, growing up an avid comics reader, I've read many an issue of Marvel's "The Incredible Hulk," and I have to say that he's never been my favorite superhero.  The primary reason for this is two-fold:  Bruce Banner's personality is as dull as dishwater, and his alter-ego, the Hulk, is an unstoppable neanderthal who is big, green and grumpy.  The only times the comic was ever good was when there was a writer who knew that Hulk was inherently a one-trick character, and concentrated on the supporting characters for the interesting storylines, or made it a semi-comedic parody. 

Now comes the new wave of blockbuster Marvel franchises, with The Hulk riding a wave of mass approval as the next big superhero thing to hit theaters since X2.   It would seem fortuitous that they were able to score a great director like Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) to take the helm as the director.  Ang also brought along the screenwriter for all of his films, James Schamus, making comic fans, even those who didn't care much for the Hulk, ecstatic that someone with serious credentials would be bringing it to life.

Well, Ang Lee, for all of his immense visionary talents, turns out to be the wrong guy for the job.  Not everyone is meant to do an adaptation of a comic book.  It really takes someone with visual flair, a love of the medium, and a self-ironic sense of humor.  Ang Lee has the visual flair, but I question his love of the medium of comics, and I have strong suspicions that he probably considers them to be inferior ways of storytelling, at least compared to movies.  Ang Lee is also a very serious filmmaker, in every sense of the word, and The Hulk is probably the least fun film based on a comic I can remember this side of Road to Perdition

Eric Bana (The Nugget, Chopper), a fine actor, but very uncharismatic in an equally dull role as scientist Bruce Banner.  He works along side his on-again, off-again flame, Betty Ross (Connelly, A Beautiful Mind), daughter of a well-decorated Army general (Elliott, The Contender), at their lab in Berkeley.  What they are doing is of immense interest to an unscrupulous corporate guy like Talbot (Lucas, Sweet Home Alabama), who wants a piece of the action to make a sure buck.  A mishap occurs, causing Bruce to take the brunt of a blast of radiation, lo and behold, triggering something in him genetically that turns the meek scientist into a green goliath whenever he loses his temper.  Now, Bruce's wacko scientist father, imprisoned for a crime so heinous that Bruce blocked all memory of it, wants a reunion, while General Ross and Mr. Talbot both want to exploit Bruce's alter ego for their own devices.  This makes Hulk very, very angry.  When Hulk angry, Hulk smash!

At a lengthy two hours and twenty minutes, The Hulk feels like a four hour movie.  This is because there is little action for much of the first half, and consequently little excitement.  Never fear, because as soon as the talking head marathon is over, we are finally treated to the sight of Hulk smashing up his lab.  Then there's some more bad drama between Jennifer Connelly and the gruff Sam Elliott, the gruff Nick Nolte (The Good Thief, Affliction), and finally friends of McGruff (the crime dog) in the form of some Hulk dogs.  If you paid $8 in the hopes of seeing a big green man kick the crap out of a poodle, you can sit back and smile, chagrined that The Hulk is money well spent.

There's some terribly distasteful human drama going on at all times, filled with ridiculously artificial dialogue.  Almost no one in the entire film acts like a real person might in that situation, and if this is because they are a bunch of scientists of self-serving opportunists, then it's even worse.  It's a story without a hero, and in the superhero movie biz, that's not a good thing to be.

I have to back up a bit and give The Hulk the due it deserves on the positive side for a moment, as it manages to save itself from being an out-and-out travesty for a good 30 minute stretch.  This is a scene where Hulk is on the loose, running for his life from some well-armed fighter helicopters, tearing up the desert landscape, and culminating with a tour-de-force of special effects that sees the streets of San Francisco potentially undergoing the destructive force of "the big one" once and for all.  Ironically, for a film with so much explanatory talk, when it finally stops trying to explain itself, it actually starts to make more sense.

It then finally occurs to me why The Hulk is a film that never finds sure footing.  Ang Lee is trying to make an Ang Lee film while also trying to stay true to the comic book form, a form which he does not have a full understanding.  He looks at an issue of "The Incredible Hulk" and sees the form, but not the content.  He sees the many panels depicting different storylines.  He sees the unique comic lettering that says things like "A few days later..." or "Meanwhile."  He sees large heads talking to each other on almost every page, except when there is some sort of smashing done by a green guy going on.  All of these things he sees, and he tries to emulate them all in his movie, thinking its the form of the comic that has the appeal and not the characters. 

"The Hulk" in all its forms, from comic to TV show to motion picture, is about a man/monster who is misunderstood, wanting to be good but no one will allow him the chance, because everyone has their own selfish notions as to what he should be.  Life imitates art, as no one seems to misunderstand the character of The Hulk more than Ang Lee, making a film with an intent to be good, yet Lee's notions of what "good" is doesn't fit in with the nature of the beast.  Like the many comic writers who came before and have failed to make "The Incredible Hulk" interesting, Lee makes the fatal mistake of thinking it's Bruce's angst and Hulk's rage that made it a fan favorite, when all the while it was merely the situations he was in and the characters he was surrounded with that ever made the simple dynamic compelling.  If this franchise has any hopes of continuing, it's going to take someone who knows already knows this fundamental fact to be the real hero, and save humanity from having to view any more bad Hulk dramathons.

-- Previous versions of the Hulk include a 1977 made-for-TV movie followed by a TV series from 1978-1982, and three animated TV series in 1966, 1982, and 1996-7.  Rebooted in 2008 with The Incredible Hulk.

Qwipster's rating:

2003 Vince Leo