“The Hulk” is probably the best comic book adaptation of 2003, which is unofficially the Year of the Superheroes. What “The Hulk” has going for it is a sure hand by director Ang Lee and two outstanding leads in Australian newcomer Eric Bana (“The Nugget”) and longtime American beauty Jennifer Connelly (“A Beautiful Mind”). Bana and Connelly, as ex-lovers turned scientific partners Bruce Banner and Betty Ross, respectively, make beautiful music together.
As for the film itself, it’s a mixture of massive comic book action set pieces and serious melodrama. The latter involves the type of familial entanglements that frequent collaborators James Schamus and Ang Lee are used to putting on the screen, even if the medium happened to be martial arts (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), the Civil War (“Ride With the Devil”), or Taiwanese cuisine (“Eat Drink Man Woman”). Comic book fans will get a thrill out of watching the Hulk be realized on the big screen as a completely CGI character, while everyone else will enjoy the human drama.
In a lot of ways, “The Hulk” is probably the most complete comic book movie I’ve seen, with equal attention paid to the dramatics as well as the superheroics. More “X-Men” in its attempt to ground its story in reality rather than wild and crazy like “Spiderman”, “The Hulk” actually makes its 2-hours-plus running length seem too short. Of course I’ve heard others grouse about the long running time; I didn’t mind at all, and in fact could have done with an extra 30 minutes or so. The relationship between Banner and Betty, as well as their relationships with their respective parental figures, were just as important as scenes of the Hulk smashing helicopters and demolishing a whole block of San Francisco, it not more so.
In the movie, Eric Bana plays mild mannered scientist Bruce Banner, an egghead (albeit not such a total nerd ala Peter Parker) experimenting in gamma radiation as a means to cure people. Banner is the altruistic type, which makes the presence of wormy capitalist Talbot (Josh Lucas) unwelcome. With their lab risking a hostile takeover by Talbot’s corporation, Betty calls in her father, “Thunderbolt” Ross (Sam Elliot), a high-ranking General in some super duper military weapons development branch or some such. Also, Bruce’s long-absent father, the clearly insane David Banner (the nearly perfect Nick Nolte) is sneaking around the lab harboring his own clearly insane agenda.
Amazingly enough, I easily ignored the fact that both Talbot and Ross were living, breathing, and walking cliché. In Hollywood, corporations equal EEE-vil; the same is true for the military. (The only exception to the latter rule is if the story itself revolves around the military, e.g. “Blackhawk Down” or “We Were Soldiers”.) And anyway, the writers treat us to an excellent end for the annoying Talbot, who gets the comic book death treatment, while Ross managed to redeem himself somewhat by movie’s end.
Ang Lee directs the big-budget film as if he was afraid the audience might get bored. I don’t know why he would think this, because the Hulk makes his first appearance about 40 minutes in, which isn’t that long in a 140-minute movie. Even before the Hulk’s first sighting, we get a curiously green-tinted Eric Bana’s intense stare. Perhaps to facilitate a more comic book-y vibe, Lee is constantly throwing all kinds of creative shots at the audience. Also, scene transitions are done with flair, and I can’t recall a scene that was handled with a traditional cut.
The big question coming into “The Hulk” is the realism of the titular character. Surprisingly, the Hulk is most realistic when we see him up close, either in close-up or in tight shots. It’s when the Hulk is a tiny figure running in the background, or throwing tanks around, that he seems painfully fake. Who would have thought that the CGI would look so much more human up close and personal? Speaking of which, viewers might be interested to learn that all of the Hulk’s actions and facial expressions were modeled from director Ang Lee, who was the human model for the CGI Hulk’s every movement.
In a summer filled with superheroes, “The Hulk” has to rank right up there with the return of the Terminator in “T3” and the first 30 minutes of “Daredevil”. Even “X-Men 2”, the current box office champ of 2003 among superhero movies, lacks the humanity that shines brilliantly in “The Hulk”. Maybe it’s the presence of Ang Lee, a man who cut his teeth on small independent films, which managed to turn a comic book into a movie about relationships. Now that’s an accomplishment.
And yes, the filmmakers did leave room for a sequel.
Ang Lee (director) / James Schamus, John Turman, Michael France (screenplay)
CAST: Eric Bana …. Bruce Banner
Jennifer Connelly …. Betty Ross
Sam Elliott …. Ross
Josh Lucas …. Talbot
Nick Nolte …. David Banner