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Hulk Smash (But Not A Classic)
A review of Hulk
by J. D. Rummel

With all the talk of Ang Lee tackling the Hulk you'd have thought that some great philanthropist was coming to the slums to help out. The fact of the matter is that comic books aren't slums. They are literature every bit as much as The Grapes of Wraith or Paradise Lost. They are still developing, but too often clueless folks think they are childish things. They aren't, but Ang Lee somehow felt he had to change the original source material to make his point in The Hulk.

Director: Ang Lee

Stars: Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Sam Elliott, Josh Lucas, Nick Nolte

Rating: PG-13

Release: 06-20-2003

Time: 138 minutes

Buy Movie at That is not to say that he has made a bad movie, he hasn't, but it is not the breakthrough classic some folks had hoped for.

Still, the needlessly altered story makes the points Lee set out to make: fathers can really hand down a lot of crap that their children have to live with. In greater detail, David Banner (Nick Nolte) is a whacked out scientist working for the government (embodied more or less by Sam Elliot) who genetically alters himself and his newborn son, Bruce. Eventually his obsession becomes homicidal madness and Bruce grows up not knowing anything about his birth parents, but emotionally handicapped. He is repressed and withdrawn from his feelings. This repression costs him his romance with Betty Ross a scientist with whom he works and the daughter of the man that jailed his father (If I had a shot at romance with Jennifer Connelly I would do therapy twenty-four hours a day to make it work). A lab accident with their research and Banner's own altered DNA combine to release the repressed Bruce who is one green mountain of rage. The rest of the film revolves around Banner being discovered, captured, studied, and getting loose, with the major subplot of his father trying to observe his son and...well, I'm not sure, but he's insane, so maybe it isn't supposed to make sense.

There are two solid aspects to The Hulk. First, the performances by the principals are all first rate. Nick Nolte and Sam Elliot do very impressive turns as driven, and obsessively focused fathers who contribute harshly to their children's lives, ultimately cursing them and their relationships. Nolte probably deserves some kind of nomination for the portrait he draws of a ruined life. Jennifer Connelly and Eric Bana as the Hulk's Fay Wray and his human self respectively also bring depth and weight to their characters.

Secondly, and more importantly for this movie, the special effects are breathtaking. This movie would have been impossible without CGI, and it succeeds most clearly because of the artists who make the Hulk come alive onscreen. The art of making fantastic films believable continues to reach new heights. The Hulk effect looks very real most of the time, particularly in close up. Fans of the early Hulk adventures will thrill to his leaping around the desert.

Problems? Mostly the needlessly convoluted story setting up Nolte's character (who becomes the Absorbing Man near the end of the film). The initial pace gets bogged down in back story and it doesn't need to. Lee could easily have made the same points with far fewer twists and turns. There are real gaps in logic and areas where our own sense of how the world works makes us raise an eyebrow, (wouldn't investigators at the crime scene have been able to explain some of the violence of Mrs. Banner's death? Weren't reports filed?) But those thoughts get swept away in the Hulk's rampages--which are glorious. An interesting thing Lee does is use split screen images much like the panels of a comic book. It is clear he is not skilled at this and that filmmakers have much to learn from masters of panel based sequential art narrative such as Steranko and Miller. While the mechanism has tremendous potential in the movie medium, the use here is flat and uninspired.

It should be noted that Ang Lee raised the bar higher than in any other comic book adaptation to date, working to make a marriage: true art film about emotional damage filtered through the unbounded imaginative engine that is the super hero comic book. So he had farther to fall. Had he simply been truer to the essence of the comic book Hulk he would have made a tighter film and more purely brought us to the same conclusions.

At some point, comics will be used as the source for a true masterpiece of filmmaking. The effects are there, the performers always have been, the story just hasn't been shaped properly. Respect the source material and there is gold to be mined.