(2003) Superhero (Universal) Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Sam Elliott, Josh Lucas, Nick Nolte, Paul Kersey, Cara Buono, Celia Weston, Daniel Dae Kim, Kevin Rankin, Todd Tesen, Mike Erwin, Lou Ferrigno, Stan Lee, Regi Davis. Directed by Ang Lee
As the great existentialist philosopher Kermit the Frog (think about it) once said, “It’s not easy being green” and Hulk is a movie which brings that concept to life.
Based on the Marvel comic book much more than the television series that it spawned (more on that in a minute), Eric Bana. in his first international role outside his native Australia, is Bruce Banner, a geneticist working with gamma radiation in order to improve the human condition. His girlfriend, Betty Ross (Connelly) works alongside him in a Bay Area-based lab.
Things go awry when in a lab accident, Bruce is exposed to a lethal dose of gamma radiation. To everyone’s surprise, he doesn’t die. In fact, he seems to be healthier than ever. This, of course, catches the notice of the U.S. Military, in the form of General Thunderbolt Ross (Elliott), who is, in fact, Betty’s estranged father.
Bruce has an estranged father, too…emphasis on the “strange.” Nick Nolte, who apparently thinks the hairstyle in his notorious mugshot photo is the height of modern follicle fancy, plays David Banner (in a nod to the TV show, which changed the name of the Hulk’s alter ego to David) whom Bruce had thought dead. David was not dead, but just a little — How do we say it? — whacko.
Turns out David was a scientist in his own right, and in the tradition of over-the-top scientists, performed an experiment on himself, which was genetically passed on to his son. Later, as David gets more and more eccentric, the military (which employs him) becomes more and more concerned and eventually shuts down his microbiological research.
David loses it, and this leads to a traumatic incident which causes David to leave, and for Bruce to be scarred for life, although the exact nature of what happens isn’t revealed until late in the movie.
Bruce returns home, thinking everything is fine, but after being put under emotional stress, changes into a green-skinned behemoth, fiendishly strong and nearly invulnerable, able to leap enormous distances in single bounds. This, of course, really catches the military’s interest, and soon Bruce is under wraps in a secret desert facility. Ironically the same one at which his father worked, 20 years earlier.
The old man surfaces as well, with an agenda of his own. To further complicate things, an old flame of Betty’s, Talbot (Lucas) steps back into the picture to not only try to win Betty back, but as the head of a biotech research company, to exploit Banner and his alter ego. Of course, this leads to a great deal of “Hulk smash.”
Many theatergoers who wanted to love this movie found that they couldn’t, partly because director Ang Lee has made what is in effect two movies. The first, a psychological drama that mainly takes up the first half of the movie, one true to Lee’s art-house roots. The second is an over-the-top, computer-generated-effects-laden action thriller.
The two, for much of the movie-going public, were irreconcilable. I, on the other hand, found the two movies working well together, bringing not only a sense of angst, but an emotional level that makes the Hulk and Bruce Banner figures of tragedy, rather than powerful demigods, as many superheroes become.
Part of the movie’s theatrical problems lay in its marketing; the computer-generated Hulk scenes that made the trailer look cheesier on the small screen than on the big one. As the opening of the movie approached back in the day I remember remarking to Da Queen how a movie which I had anticipated would be one of that summer’s biggest was becoming less and less of a must-see for me, although I wound up seeing it anyway — and I’m glad I did.
The reason is two-fold, which fits in with the movie’s themes nicely. First, the human side – the acting. Bana, who has to play a cold, emotionally distant man early in the movie, is forced to deal with his feelings as the movie progresses. It’s a powerful performance in more ways than one, and set up Bana to pursue the path to stardom taken by countrymen Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman and the late Heath Ledger. What is it with Australia producing such great leading men lately, anyway? There must be something in the water.)
Jennifer Connelly, who debuted as a lustrous ingénue in another comic book adaptation The Rocketeer showed that her Academy Award-winning turn with Crowe in A Beautiful Mind was no fluke. She played Ross not as a simpering victim as she eventually became in the comic book, but as a capable, independent-minded woman with a great deal of depth and a lot of emotional baggage, which is how the character began in the comic book. Connelly nails that side of her here.
The other reason Hulk is a winner is the title character himself – the technical side. Bana morphs into a fully CG creature, but like Gollum from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Hulk is a tragic sorrowful creature, one who displays a wide emotional range of expressions. You see pathos and fury at various times on the face of the creature which makes him more than a monster. Like the best movie monsters, you feel sympathy for his plight.
And that brings me to what I really loved about this movie; the fact that it is a tragedy, and the characters in it inspire sympathy. Even the nutty David Banner, whom Nolte plays with a certain scene-chewing zest – is not really fully a monster, although by the time the movie ends he has become one. When the Hulk causes Betty fear, he displays a brooding sorrow that really sent chills up my spine. Even today when I watch the movie again, it still does.
Unfortunately, Hulk received a chilly critical reception, as well as less-than-scintillating word-of-mouth on the Internet. I can understand some finding the dual-movies approach a bit off-putting. Quite frankly, people with a limited range of cinematic appreciation are going to have problems with Hulk.
However, I think that a much larger percentage of the movie-going population will find this a worthwhile investment of time. If you skipped this movie during its theatrical release because of the unfavorable notices, do yourself a favor and give it a chance on home video; see it on as big a TV screen as you can find. Make up your own mind on this one; you may be pleasantly surprised to find a movie that didn’t deserve the critical and fanboy whipping it took.
WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Bana and Connelly. Hulk creature sympathetic and well-articulated.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some over-the-top scene chewing. Dichotomy between superhero action and psychological drama too much for some.
FAMILY MATTERS: Some violence in a superhero/science fiction vein, a little bit of bad language, a few disturbing images and some partial nudity, albeit a brief view of nothing offensive.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The motion capture for the Hulk creature was performed by Ang Lee himself.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a featurette on the evolution of the character from the comic books to the TV series to the first film (of course, the more recent Edward Norton version isn’t mentioned in the feature, having been made five years after this version. There is also a series of Sunny Delight ads (!) that tied in to the film on the Special Edition DVD (although thankfully missing from the Blu-Ray). There is also a close-up look at the dog fight scene.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $245.4M on a $137M production budget; the film was just shy of breaking even at the box office.
FINAL RATING: 8/10