Style over substance, introspectiveness over action? Yeah, but it's fascinating to watch even if the story itself isn't.
This is the umpteenth comic book translation of the last few years and here at theOneliner we're a little worried that everyone's getting sick of them. It's good to see that Ang Lee has chosen to take a different, non-wire-fu route for Hulk, producing something unmistakably different to X2 or Daredevil but it's also something that I'm sure is going to turn into a crushing disappointment for a lot of people.
After the standard issue Marvel adaptation ten-minute long credits, we meet Dr. David Banner (Nick Nolte, eventually, although played by Paul Kersey in this prologue) who is busy experimenting with ways to regenerate living tissue as part of a military experiment. Denied permission to use human subjects due to his radical gene manipulation techniques, David at least shows faith in his work by experimenting on himself. This has some unconsidered consequences after his wife falls pregnant, namely that something has been passed on to his child, Bruce. Exactly what, he doesn't know. We do, of course, knowing his eventual jolly green Hulkster transformation.
After news of his continued and illegal research, he's drummed into prison by his C.O. Ross, and lil' Bruce sent off to foster parents with no recollection of his birth parents due to the trauma of it all. The narrative lightly skips over his college days to his current employ as a crack scientist researching regeneration of living tissue in a spooky coincidence. Despite seeing some limited success, at the moment his nano-technology / gamma radiation pseudoscience combo has only resulted in an expensive yet spectacular way to explode frogs. He's helped in his research by Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly), his ex-lover due to Bruce's cold emotional distance.
Their relationship doesn't have the tense, charged atmosphere you might expect it to have, but that's how it's supposed to be. Eric Bana plays Bruce, and plays him with fidelity to the comic's character. He's taken a few slatings for a cold, almost disinterested, detached and emotionally repressed character which is point-missing of spectacular proportions given that's the very essence of the Bruce Banner character. It's not long before the relative peace is shattered by a lab accident with Bruce heroically saving his friend from a lethal dose of gamma radiation by absorbing it himself. The strange thing is, he doesn't die.
He's fine, to the general bemusement of all. Indeed he seems to be stronger, if anything. Something strange has happened, it's clear. Something seems to have been awoken, however. Something angry and green. Other strange things have been happening too. A smarmy executive for the generically evil corporation Atheon, Talbot (Josh Lucas) shows up 'suggesting' they might want to pack up their research and work for them before they're forced to hand it over. In the aftermath of the accident, Betty's father the aforementioned General Ross' (Sam Elliott) interest is reawakened in the Banner family and starts throwing his weight around to have Bruce detained as a security risk. A new janitor starts taking an extreme interest in Bruce and his work, quickly revealed to be David Banner, released from the hellhole General Ross has him incarcerated in.
While Bruce is introspective and only emotive before his new found trick of turning into a big green rage-monster, his father is as nutty as a fruitcake, consumed by what he's inadvertently passed on to his child seeking ways to understand and control it. Despite the film's preponderance with showing the struggles with General Ross using his army resources to contain Bruce/Hulk in a remote desert base, it's actually David Banner that should have been focused on more, despite Nolte doing an unremarkable job in his portrayal. Ross only ever seems to be caught up in the tale as a by-product of Bruce's unresolved relationship issues with his father and Betty, and it can seem the army's only present as Hulk fodder.
Almost all of the runtime is devoted to Ross and then Talbot's capture and containment of Banner, with Ross attempting to let Betty understand and cure Bruce until Talbot takes over. Talbot is a barely sufferable character, smarmy and irritating throughout. How much of this is scripted and how much is due to a pretty poor performance from Sweet Home Alabama survivor Lucas we'll never know, but it's nice to see him eventually feel Hulk's rage. it's only once all of this is out of the way with a few ill-fitting action scenes that we see the true resolution of his (literally) stormy relationship with his father, but with all the jumping around in focus the climax doesn't seem quite as climatic as it could have been.
If films were rated purely on style, this would be an Oscar winner. Ang Lee has created this film in such a way that you have to wonder if Sam Raimi or Bryan Singer ever contemplated it but wrote it off as too risky. This quite literally is a comic book you're watching unfold before you. The transitions between scenes imitate your eye sliding between panels. The framing is exactly as you can see the comic. The same event is show from different angles in judicious use of split screen. Layers are overlaid on some intercuts that make it fell like you are watching the cels being dropped down in front of you. It's utterly astonishing. Huge, huge kudos to Tim Squyres (who also worked with Lee on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and the editing team for making everything look so darn slick
The colours are bright and bold, even more so than Spiderman, utterly rejecting the darker feel of the X-Men franchise. This is an adaptation of the golden age of comics, all brash colour and over the top character design. It's utterly, utterly baffling to me that respected critics (and please don't mention the unwashed masses of IMDB reader reviews that can barely string together a coherent sentence and shouldn't be allowed to comment on what they've had for breakfast) can bash the graphic work in this film. Moaning that a fifteen-foot tall hugely muscled green anger-monger does not look 'realistic' is about the least valid complaint I've ever had the misfortune to be astonished by. This continual quest for photo-realism in CG work seems to blind people to the fact that there isn't any physical way this tale could be told realistically. It is inherently unrealistic, thus the choice of a cartoony Hulk fits like a glove. His action scenes never fail because of any graphic work.
Then perhaps fail because they seem tacked on at the behest of studio execs rather than as part of the story. This isn't a problem with the earlier manifestations of Bruce's big green alter ego, but the ending of the film seems like it was thought necessary to have Hulk destroy a bunch of stuff to sell it to the kids. Even this doesn't seem quite right though, as though Ang was afraid to let the beast truly rage in the way it seems like he should during this scene. Given that Hulk feeds on his rage and his destruction, he's remarkably content to jump out of the way of many of his attackers rather than crush them into tiny pieces. For a 'mindless Hulk', in Bruce's own words, he seems to have an uncanny degree of self-control and battle awareness of hi-tech armament capacity. While his effective demolition of the Hulk-dogs earlier established him well as a raging, berserk beast of a pummeller, the finale almost shows him as, well, intelligent, one thing Hulk certainly isn't.
And it hurts the film, probably kills it for many people. If you were expecting the balls-out smash-a-thon then this is too little, far too late to redeem it. If you were digging the slower, more introspective story of the characters and Bruce's struggle with himself the last half hour almost feels like it's been dropped in from another film. Perhaps it's trying to be all things to all people, but it ends up satisfying neither camp having none of the balance present in X2, say.
In the final analysis, the fatal flaw Ang Lee has saddled himself with is his adherence to the comic book and the respect he has for its ethos. While the colours, style and action are all fitting, brash and larger (and greener) than life, the actual story of Bruce is flatter and greyer than the film deserves. His character is certainly close to his comic incarnation, and that's the issue. Bruce frankly isn't too interesting in the pantheon of Marvel characters, having none of Spiderman's wit, Wolverine's mystery, Nightcrawler's torment, Magneto's ruthlessness, Professor Xavier's stature. David Banner just bottles up emotions, which isn't very interesting to watch, until they spill out and cause him to smash things. Admittedly, the big green guy is more interesting to watch but with no intelligence he's just a big powerful action figure with a nice line in purple boxers. Without event the vaguest hint of a joke to lighten the film it also feels rather plodding.
Marking this proves difficult. In terms of the actual story it's lucky to break the three star mark. In terms of style, it's an easy five. Make no mistake, this is one of the most interesting looking films you'll see all year, even if the underlying story isn't. I challenge anyone not to walk out of the cinema with at least a sense of respect for these more technical aspects. I don't like saying things like this, but here the style is way more than the substance and I'd recommend seeing it purely for this alone. There are a few stretches where a more conventional style is used and to be honest I was getting very bored by it, but as soon as Ang Lee breaks out the tricks again I was mesmerised all over again. I think I've given this enough coverage for you to realise that this in all likelihood won't blow your socks off, and your tolerance for films of a more stately pacing will probably decide what you make of the movie.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.
Jennifer Connelly (Betty Ross)
Sam Elliott (General Ross)
Josh Lucas (Talbot)
Nick Nolte (David Banner)