Mark Reviews Movies

THE HULK

2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Ang Lee

Cast: Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Nick Nolte, Sam Elliot, Josh Lucas

MPAA Rating:  PG-13 (for sci-fi action violence, some disturbing images and brief partial nudity)

Running Time: 2:18

Release Date: 6/20/03


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Review by Mark Dujsik

The screenwriters and director of The Hulk seem to be at odds, and it's only the editor that stands between them and somehow makes the whole thing, for the most part, work. On one side, you have the writers: John Turman, Michael France, and James Schamus; on the other, you have the director: Ang Lee. Schamus and Lee have worked together several times before, but the other two have not. Lee takes this material—the kind of stuff that's supposed to shake the theater next door—and turns down the volume. It's a quiet, introspective blockbuster—a mood piece, not an action extravaganza. There are the fight scenes, the destruction scenes, and the special effects scenes, but they seem almost out of place here. To compensate, editor Tim Squyres prepares us for the pulpy material by visually realizing the format and style of a comic book in the cinematic language. It's a strange conflict between people who each want to go about this material in their own way. The Hulk succeeds in moments when it should fail and falls short in sequences that should spell its greatest success. The movie is ambitious but inconsistent and, in the end, a slight letdown.

Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) is a research scientist working with gamma radiation as part of a military experiment that could spell a major breakthrough in genetic manipulation. Along with him for the work is Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly), who also just recently broke up with him on account of his emotional distance and suppression. The experiment continues to fail, but Banner and Ross are determined. Neither wants the research to come into the hands of rival Talbot (Josh Lucas), although he is continuously trying to convince Ross to join him. Something eventually goes wrong, and Banner risks his life to save a fellow scientist. In the process, he absorbs a tremendous amount of gamma radiation. Ross is dumbfounded; none of the test subjects has ever survived. Then a mysterious janitor turns up at Bruce's bedside to reveal some things from his past. The man is his biological father David (Nick Nolte, relishing in hamming it up like there's no tomorrow), who also did genetic experimentation. He moved beyond animals, though, and actually began to test himself. Some of what he did has passed on to Bruce, explaining why he survived the accident and why he turns into a giant, muscular, green creature with anger issues.

The movie takes what is essentially Hulk's origin story as its dramatic thrust. It's an intelligent idea, too, as it offers more opportunity for character establishment and development. Bruce Banner follows in the tradition of other tormented super heroes, but his internal struggle is understandable and sympathetic. Unaware of his birth parents and haunted by recurring nightmares of what seems to be his past and a sneaking suspicion that they are not merely subconscious creations but are indeed real tragedy, he has all the makings of a tragic hero. We become so accustomed to the character work that the eventual action sequences seem somewhat out of place. They're managed well, but in one scene, Bruce's father sends a trio of mutated dogs after Betty. It's conflict for no real reason, leading to a slightly disjointed plot. The most interesting area the movie ventures into is the father/son relationship. There's something to work with here, but instead the screenwriters decide to play out the obvious scenario. David uses gamma radiation on himself, causing an effect that is, as he puts it, "unstable," and it leads to a final conflict that abandons catharsis for a coherent but still jumbled, odd, and unnecessary battle. It does get points for simultaneously utilizing three of the basic conflicts: man vs. man, man vs. self, and man vs. nature.

As for the technical aspects of the movie, there's a lot going on to make it seem as much like a comic book as possible. Squyres uses lots of multiple split screens to convey the sense of frames on a page, and the transitions implement shifting perspective and background and foreground inserts (e.g., during a telephone conversation, one character's face is placed next to the other's). The special effects revolve around the creature, which is a mixed bag. It's obviously an effect, but somehow, because of the style of the movie, it works. On top of it, the effects artists have gone to great lengths on the Hulk's facial expressions, making them surprisingly sincere. After he transforms for the first time, there's a great moment in which he confronts his father. Lee takes his time with this scene, allowing a connection to be made and a response to be elicited. In fact, Lee seems an odd choice for this material, taking into account his past work, but he gives it life. Even the action scenes are relatively muted. When everything comes together, like during a flashback sequence that ends with a woman reaching out toward a distant nuclear explosion, it works better than it should. The climactic chase across the country that ends on an emotional note is also worthy of note.

I'm still torn on The Hulk, even though I admire its virtues more than I lament its flaws. There's simply too much within the movie at conflict with itself to ultimately recommend it. Lee obviously has great aspirations for the material, but the script simply doesn't provide him with the substance he needs to fulfill them.

Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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