*The Hulk (PG-13)
Art house director Ang Lee (The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) enters the Marvel Comics-inspired action-hero genre with characteristic precision and visual flair, adding pop psychological analysis to a mix that turns out to be more like King Kong than Spiderman. The Hulk, a $150 million extravaganza starring a rubbery, green, computer-animated, overgrown bodybuilder in tight cutoffs, is not as much fun as X-Men 2 and not as ponderous or self-important as The Matrix Reloaded, but enters the field of blockbusting summer action-adventure with grace and style.
Lee offers lots of back story in the film's first half, visiting the desert military base where, in the 1950s, scientist David Banner goes a little overboard with self-experimentation in his zeal to create a super-immune system, a genetic makeup that can repair itself when sick or injured. Banner alters his own DNA then sires a son, Bruce, who transports his father's hubris and twisted genius into the next generation. But not before a fateful day when young Bruce witnesses a domestic dispute between his parents -- a loud quarrel behind closed doors, blood, a knife. His father is carted off to prison for 30 years, his mother is dead, and he is adopted.
Fast-forward 30 years.
Bruce, played by Australian hunk Eric Bana, works at a Berkeley lab developing "nanomeds," substances that will hopefully one day cause a regenerative effect in cells, allowing humans to heal themselves. He works alongside his beautiful ex-girlfriend Betty (Jennifer Connelly), who has broken off the relationship because Bruce seems emotionally blocked (her diagnosis: repressed memories of childhood trauma). The military has gotten wind of the work in the lab and wants to take it over, and at the same time, a scraggly janitor (Nick Nolte) appears in the hallways, watching and waiting. When Bruce is accidentally zapped with a huge dose of gamma rays, his latent genetic superstructure, combined with pent-up rage, make way for the Hulk, an alter ego of enormous proportions. The janitor turns to be his mad scientist daddy, recently released from prison and determined to carry on his work.
Betty and Bruce are symbiotic souls; both have gravelly-voiced, gruff, emotionally distant fathers (hers is Sam Neill playing Army General Ross), both are geniuses united in their research, and both have gorgeous dark-brown eyes and pale, lustrous skin. Connelly is solid as the damsel-in-control, mastering the film talent of silent weeping, single fat tears rolling out of her unblinking eyes down her chiseled cheeks. Bana is fine too, reserved, pent-up and buff. Nolte gives a one-man freak show that blows the mad scientist genre right off the map, looking like he just emerged from 30 years in the drunk tank, ingesting methamphetamines the whole time.
The Hulk is slow going but interesting up to the point when the monster erupts and the inevitable chase begins. Military helicopters and tanks pursue the green guy through the canyon lands of Utah, over sand dunes, through the desert, to the streets of San Francisco, in thrilling action scenes. Lee employs every trick in the book -- extreme close-ups, crane shots, split screen -- to give the film an action-hero/comic-book look, and the effects are mesmerizing.
Only the computer animated graphic that is the Hulk gives pause, and only because we have become so spoiled in the age of perfect deception. The monster looks soft and rubbery; he bounces across vast landscapes; he doesn't appear to have weight or heft. He looks like Shrek, except meaner, with Eric Bana's wet eyes. He's not scary.
I found this quibble not insurmountable. The Hulk offers enough visual pizazz, enough technical wizardry, enough cinematic beauty to overcome this shortfall. A sequel is set up in the movie's final scene and we can hope that by the time it hits the summer blockbuster scene, the Hulk himself might have bulked up a bit. Bruce, meanwhile, will have worked on those repressed memories and will be able to channel his rage a little more effectively.
-- Kathryn Eastburn