Directed by Ang Lee. Starring Eric Bana, Nick Nolte, Jennifer Connelly, Sam Elliott, Josh Lucas, Paul Kersey, Cara Buono. (2003, PG-13, 138 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., June 20, 2003
Hulk smash good, Puny Human, but Nick Nolte just look smashed. It’s an unfortunate visual coda to Nolte’s career. The actor – who plays warped papa to the rampaging, green, computer-generated id that is the Hulk and also to the flesh-toned version of his son, Bruce Banner (Bana) – has the echo of his infamous DUI mugshot clinging tenaciously to his latter-day roles. His grizzled, been-there-drank-that scowl served him well in the recent Bob Le Flambeur remake, The Good Thief, where, as an aging, junk-spent mal vivant he appeared more wraithlike than corporeal. Here, with his choppy mane manhandled into an explosive updraft of bedhead and offset by a fifty-o’clock shadow and a jittery lunatic stare, he looks downright partied out, a cartoon baddie on a mission from god, or worse. In fact, everything about Ang Lee’s sprawling vision of Marvel Comics’ The Hulk is painted in the broad, flashing, manic strokes of its two-dimensional source material made real. It takes a bit of getting used to, but 30 minutes in, your jaw stops unhinging every time Lee translates a hyper-stylistic comic-book trope into a fresh chunk of cinematic language – the bizarre transitions, wipes, and split-screen effects that divvy up the onrushing images into two, four, six, even eight separate shots simultaneously, all bursting with kinetic squabbles of action, reaction, and undeniable visual flair. It’s something of a miraculous accomplishment on Lee’s part. Previous comic-book adaptations, from the misbegotten Tank Girl to Dick Tracy, have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to capture the essentially static lightning of the printed pulp page and splash it across the screen, but no one has ever succeeded with anything approximating the sheer energetic brilliance of what Lee has managed here. For all intents and purposes, this is a comic-book movie in the very truest and most vibrant sense of the phrase. All Jungian overtones aside (and the Hulk’s tale of repressed passions and patriarchal disabilities is nothing if not pure Jung), Lee’s film is eminently suited to its dime-store inspiration. You could flip the pages, it seems, if only your hands were big enough. The story is familiar to any Hulk fan: Scientist Bruce Banner transforms into the muscle-bound, 15-foot-tall Hulk whenever he’s angered, thanks to a career setback involving a gamma-ray mishap and his father’s penchant for self-experimentation, which has altered his son’s DNA. Banner is pursued by the military (led by Sam Elliott’s "Thunderbolt" Ross, who looks an awful lot like Spider-Man’s boss J. Jonah Jameson minus the stogie). Banner-the-younger’s love interest is co-scientist Betty Ross (Connelly) – early on, there’s a hint that their relationship hit the skids thanks to Bruce’s inability to display "passion," but that lightly dangled bedroom-dysfunction joke grows by degrees into a cinematic examination of aberrant sexual psychology. Like I said, Lee is nothing if not ambitious. And what of the Hulk himself, that not-so-jolly green giant? The first all-CGI character to truly hold the screen for the duration, he’s dynamic in ways Bana’s wooden Banner is not, cannot be (and properly so – he acts like the repressed sci-guy fans expect). Another great leap forward for both Marvel Comics and movies, The Hulk is epic in scope and theme and flat-out, knockdown visual punch, a comic-book movie for adults, that, while it finally flies wide of its intended "classic" mark, is shockingly ambitious in nearly everything it attempts, whether it actually succeeds or not. And that Nolte fellow, well, he’s a scream, too.