“You’re making me angry,” says Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) before transforming into the muscle bound Hulk. “You won’t like me when I’m angry.” Oh yes we will Bruce. In fact, we like you lot more when you’re angry. Director Ang Lee has taken the comic book bully’s story and added touches of intelligence, style and grace, everything in fact, except personality. Bana (whose Ken doll hair I found very distracting) plays Banner as an emotionally detached zombie, draining him of any spark.
Recent Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly doesn’t fare much better. Her Betty Ross is a pretty picture – beautiful to look at, but lacking in any dimension. It is amazing that a movie which expects the audience to buy a wild chemical explanation as to why Banner blows up into his hulking alter ego can have so little chemistry between its two lead actors. There is barely a glimmer when they are on-screen together.
Not so when the big guy enters the picture. The CGI creation is part King Kong, part Frankenstein and all Harryhausen, but yet seems like nothing we’ve ever seen before. Like Frankie and Kong before him, he capable of mindless violence and mass destruction, also has a gentle, compassionate side. In one scene that seems to echo King Kong, Hulk picks up Betty in his massive fist before gently placing her on the roof of a car so he car get a better look at her. Here we see the marvels of the CGI and the Hulk’s wonderfully expressive face. This collection of pixels and binary code ironically brings the movie to life. Of course the Hulk on a rampage is more fun, but Lee paces the action carefully, barely giving us a glimpse of the main attraction until almost an hour into the film, and then uses him sparingly.
People expecting to see an action movie will be sorely disappointed. Hulk (the movies drops “the”) has its moments – the battle with the killer mutant dogs is exciting and violent while Hulk’s desert show-down with the army has the makings of a classic in the superhero oeuvre – but favours the cerebral over the physical. Most of the action here takes place inside Bruce Banner’s mind as he battles with his fate. Hulk historians will note that stylistically Lee has crafted a film using crazy jump-cuts, dissolves and split screens that emulates the wild design of the original comic books.
The supporting cast fares much better than the above the title actors. Josh Lucas hands in a one-note performance as the fleabag military weapons contractor turned Hulk’s punching bag, but seems to be having a good time while doing it. Sam Elliott plays Ross, an army muckety-muck who is bent on destroying the green blowtop. In the hands of a lesser actor this would have been a stereotypical turn as the paranoid, untrusting military man. Instead Elliot gives us the stiff façade of a career warrior, but reveals a softer core – someone who is tormented by the unpleasant choices he has to make.
But it is Nick Nolte’s scene chewing that steals the movie. With his hair standing on end (think of the famous mug shot from last September) and wild eyes blazing Nolte is an organic visual effect that rivals his CGI co-star. As David Banner, the scientist father of the Hulk, he experimented with his own DNA and passed the genetic flaw on to his son. The elder Banner is only playing with only 44 cards in the deck, and Nolte’s over-the-top performance makes his a riveting character.
Hulk may have its flaws, but Ang Lee has done something really interesting here. He’s taken the hoary old superhero genre and freshened it up visually while adding a level of thoughtfulness and context that is missing from other movies of its kind.