Archive for June 20, 2003


June 20, 2003

A scientist — a mad, driven genius, who has already conducted illicit experiments on himself — torments his baby boy in the crib and looks on, mesmerized, as the squalling infant’s legs break out in a veiny rash of green. The baby grows up to be Bruce Banner (Eric Bana), a physicist unwittingly following in the career footsteps of his long-lost father; Bruce holds himself in tight, blocking himself off from close relationships, as if afflicted by sense memories of those crib days when anger led to physical deformity and misery.

What a strange and fascinating contraption Hulk is. This movie about repressed emotions and repressed memories is itself repressed: It withholds the main attraction — the roaring green Id, the Hulk, smashing everything in sight — for at least a full hour. The art-house director Ang Lee would seem, at first glance, an odd choice for a summer blockbuster about a green creature of rage. But repression has been Lee’s dominant theme — from the virtuosos locked in by duty in Eat Drink Man Woman and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, to the would-be romantic and sexual adventurers thwarted by societal designs in Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, and Brokeback Mountain. Lee approaches the decades-old Marvel Comics character as yet another wanderer in the void, denying who he is and what he wants.

Bruce, in the major change from Hulk canon as set down by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the comics, and then by Kenneth Johnson in the popular TV series, falls victim to gamma rays, which in themselves don’t change him; test subjects have tended to explode in the lab under the gamma rays, and Bruce might have too, if not for the mutation he carries in his own genes. Screenwriter James Schamus, revising earlier drafts by John Turman and Michael France, adds a twisted father-son layer to the narrative — the sins of the father, and so on. The father, David (a scraggly Nick Nolte), is a monstrosity of scientific inquiry — the type of cold intellectual who tests his theories on his son. The elder Banner, just released from a 30-year stretch in prison, has been busy: He has three canine companions, vicious little things that get more vicious — and huge — after he doses them with a serum.

Some of the movie could be a little fresher. Bruce has a fluttery relationship with scientist Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly), whose father is the blustering General “Thunderbolt” Ross (Sam Elliott); General Ross is in cahoots with slimy ex-officer Glenn Talbot (Josh Lucas) to claim Bruce’s research for military purposes. Eric Bana, another Australian actor breaking out in America, manages to look both strong and weak — close-cropped, wet-looking hair; pained soft eyes; features just this side of chiseled. He can’t get much going on with Jennifer Connelly, who continues to come off as completely empty, and the various forces weighing on Bruce’s mind result in a rather humorless performance from Bana.

Still, the movie gets one very important thing right: the essential sadness of the Hulk. As a child reading the comics, I used to feel sorry for both Bruce and his towering counterpart, each forever doomed never to know the other, bound together in fear and contempt and endless retreat from men with guns. The movie’s Bruce, however, feels almost exhilarated by what happens when his Jekyll gives way to Hyde; the sexual impaction of this buttoned-down, fearful man letting himself rampage and destroy is hard to miss.

And what of the artificial Hulk, as far from a green-painted Lou Ferrigno (who gets a sly cameo here along with Stan Lee) as inhumanly possible? As with Gollum in The Two Towers, the computer-generated Hulk is too fantastical to achieve full realism, despite his designers’ devotion to detail. We accept him, though, as a heightened projection of rage, and he’s effective in his gentler moments. I can’t deny the visceral thrill of watching the Hulk fling tanks around or literally spit metal at helicopters to bring them down, but this Hulk is more about the traumas that preface destruction. Nick Nolte and Sam Elliott, twin gray remote fathers warping their children and growling at what they’ve wrought, are the true dark stars of the piece.

Hulk climaxes on a phantasmagoric note that didn’t quite do it for me — it plays like an Off-Broadway father-son confrontation that morphs into a light show. Still, this jagged and highly unstable work, bubbling in a stew of Freud and crackpot science, is the oddest mix of concussive escapism and psychological duality since Tim Burton’s Batman. It may disappoint action fans, but it’s not really for them.