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Hulk (2003)
Director: Ang Lee

review by Patrick Hudson

For those of us who spent the 1970s cringing through dire TV shows and rotten, cheaply produced movies starring portly guys in Lycra, the current crop of superhero movies is like all of our childhood dreams come true. It's seems incredible to think of a time when comics were better than the movies that they inspired, but as recently as 1990 Batman failed to match the scope and ambition of its inspiration, Frank Miller's Dark Knight. Now suddenly, all in a row we get X-Men and X2, and Spider-Man - which are better than the comics that now bear their name - and Daredevil, which is not that great, but fast-moving and unpretentious.
   Latest in line for a piece of the action is the Hulk, directed by Ang Lee, the man who married action and romance to such exhilarating effect in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - a superhero movie, more or less, in Chinese drag. The Hulk himself has always been an appealing character, the battle for control between mild-mannered scientist Bruce Banner and the raging Hulk has a satisfyingly elemental quality that is part Jekyll & Hyde, part Frankenstein's monster. And let's not forget the sheer pleasure to be had from watching a rampaging green giant swing tanks around by their turrets and bash them to bits with each other.
   We get a reasonable amount of that, but we're made to wait for it in this long movie with a split personality just like its subject. For the first hour or so, it is a mild-mannered family drama, albeit one with a touch of the Davids about it (Cronenberg and Lynch). When a terrible accident in the lab turns Banner (here played by homophonic Eric Bana) into the raging Hulk, the movie itself gets pumped into a series of raging summer blockbuster set pieces.
   The generational drama pits Banner and his father David Banner (Nick Nolte, leaving bite marks on the scenery) - against Bruce's ex-girlfriend Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly) and her father General 'T-bolt' Ross (played with dignity by Sam Elliott) who was David Banner's nemesis in the 1960s. Banner senior had been performing illicit genetic experiments on himself when his wife became pregnant, and their effects have somehow lead young Bruce to scientific research in the exact same subject area, despite Banner senior having spent the last 30 years in a mental hospital. Did you get all that? It's the kind of soap opera tangle familiar from many comics that finds its eventual release in Bruce's spectacular Hulkgasms.
   When the Hulk arrives, Lee moves the action outside almost immediately so the Hulk can toss tanks, leap on helicopters, throw cars around, smash through walls and footpaths and make huge leaps across the beautifully photographed desert landscapes. He still looks like a Ray Harryhausen model, but the movement is very natural and the CGI wizardry allows Lee to zoom in and around the action smoothly. Ang Lee himself performed as the motion capture artiste for many of the Hulk's moves, and so while he is completely computer generated and has Eric Bana's face, in a way that's Lee waving his arms around. He does a very good job of representing a Hulk familiar from the comics, although I was disappointed that he doesn't talk.
   Lee uses the digital technology in a more subtle way to create split-screen montages that move and merge into each other in a gesture towards the story's comic book origins. It's a brilliantly cinematic effect that underlines the emotion in some of the key dramatic scenes and adds zest to the action.
   There's no doubt that Lee is highly articulate in the language of cinema but here he garbles the message. It's a decent effort and has its moments, but the best superhero comics and movies twist melodramatic storylines into their unlikely worlds of heroic conflict and cosmic powers; Hulk never quite manages this. Lee, instead, gives us two films running side by side, and we can't help but prefer the thrilling action movie (promised by the trailers, posters and hype) to the earnest relationship drama, which makes up the talky first half of the film. In the end, Lee's film fails to deliver what should have been the high-energy movie of the summer.
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