Movie review by Greg Carlson
Early in Ang Lee’s sorrowful, mannered, and dismal “Hulk,” Marvel comics mastermind Stan Lee and1970s TV Hulk Lou Ferrigno walk out of a building as security guards. The older audience members chuckle in recognition of the nifty cameo, but the fleeting bit turns out to be nothing more than a sore reminder that the green behemoth’s original incarnations in page-bound pen and ink and series television were way more fun and interesting than anything the new big screen version has to offer. Lee, the wonderful director of terrific movies like “Sense and Sensibility,” “The Ice Storm,” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” seems at first like the ideal person to tackle a large budget “event” film like “Hulk.” Surprisingly, he’s not the man for the job.
Lee and longtime collaborator James Schamus opted to update Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s 1962 comic as a dreary Oedipal pity-party, unwisely focusing large segments of the film on the repressed memories of not one, but two, major characters. The filmmakers clearly glom on to the big green one’s most obvious literary and popular culture precedents, referencing the Freudian dualism of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” the man-interfering-with-God themes of the “Frankenstein” mythology, and the beauty and the beast angle from “King Kong.” The results are as ugly as the all-digital brute cobbled together out of pixels by visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren and his team.
Weirdly, director Lee takes his sweet time before delivering a healthy dose of what ticket-holders paid to see – it’s almost as if he is taunting us with a sense of self-importance that nearly screams out: “You must take this seriously! I am dealing with big emotional issues!” No matter how hard he tries, however, the retooled origin story creeps along at a snail’s pace, and is interminably boring to boot. Aussie Eric Bana plays Bruce Banner as a gutless, defeated also-ran (I loved how he had already been dumped by hottie labmate Betty Ross before the action of the movie even begins), leaving baddie-daddy Nick Nolte to devour scenery long before he morphs into the ghoulish entity resembling Hulk foe the Absorbing Man.
The hardest pill for fans to swallow, though, is that the Hulk himself is psychologically emasculated (which calls to mind the old joke about how during his transformations, all of Banner’s clothes rip away from his body except for his trousers). Rather than run the risk of doing any real damage, the script makes certain that the furious colossus crumples up mostly government property. And in keeping with the kiddie-cartoon covenants, the occupants of tanks that are tossed several miles by the raging titan always emerge to let us know that everyone aboard is unhurt.
Ultimately distracting is Lee’s choice to clutter up the frames with multiple split screens. Clearly, the intention was to evoke the multi-paneled comic book page, but the technique reveals itself as just another irksome contrivance, distracting when the film calls for more subtlety. Many of the lengthy dialogue exchanges – and there are more than enough to last for two or three more “Hulk” movies – are presented almost entirely in close-up, resulting in a suffocating, claustrophobic screen. Sure, the movie is going to make a small fortune, but many fans will be left weeping as much and as often as Jennifer Connelly’s Betty Ross.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/23/03.