(Release Date: June 17, 2003)
In fact, let me back up a few spaces here... I have a bit of a History with the Hulk from the time I was barely a toddler to this very week, which has been consumed by waiting in line after line for this feature to open. As you can see by the pictures scattered around this page, I met the Hulk when I was around 5 years old (same day I met Spider-Man, word is bond!) and I remember him being a magnanimous and kind giant, impressed that I met Spidey that day. Hey, I'm not delusional... I have the photos to prove it... look! Growing up, I enjoyed the (admittedly Gregory Benford) television show, and the cartoons that were much more accurate to the source material. Further, the source material itself is near and dear to my heart, specifically the Peter David long run of incredible issues. As an adult I even got to introduce my daughter to the Hulk, which was a spike of happiness! In short... I know from the Hulk!
In addition, like many of you I discovered one of the best films of all time a couple of years ago, known as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Not exactly a superhero movie, but it was an amazing and beautiful piece of cinema by Ang Lee (already a well respected splash in the USA). I can't get enough of his story telling ability, and I eagerly awaited the opportunity to expand my knowledge of his work. When he was announced as the director of the new (at long last) comic book adaptation called, simply, The Hulk I was as happy as Halliburton with their Iraq contract!
After waiting this long to see the Hulk on the big screen (not to mention the next Ang Lee flick), what was a few more hours in line? So like the true comic book fan I am I took off from work, stood in line for over an hour to get free passes to the screening, and then stood in line the next night (with my excellent daughter) for well over an hour just to be one of the last people admitted into an overbooked theatre. After that evening of 6/19/03 I get to report two things: 1) Ang Lee's The Hulk is a pretty darned good movie, and you should see it! 2) Don't sit on the front row as Alex and I were forced to!
Further, in what I consider a huggy-bear consideration, Lee actually nods to the continuity of not just the comic, but the television series and the animated shows. James Schamus' story adds a new dimension to Bruce Banner's past that hasn't been hinted at before (at least not explicitly). His screenplay (with John Turman and Michael France) goes back to detail the time before Bruce Banner was born and how his father (David Banner played with the subtlety of a deftones concert by Nolte) performed experiments upon himself (and possibly Bruce) which led to the advent of Bruce's inner personality, known as the Hulk! (Fans of the TV show recognize that it was the experiments of a man named David Banner that led to the birth of the Hulk!) David Banner's use of Nanites and Gamma Experiments have permanently altered Bruce's Physiology opening the door for the inevitable.
Flashing forward we meet some clown named Bruce Krenzler(!) (Eric Bana), an adult orphan raised by adoptive parents who just happens to be in the exact same field as Dr. David Banner was before a hinted at tragedy! His coworker and main squeeze is Betty Ross (breathtakingly beautiful as a porcelain doll... Jennifer Connelly), the daughter of David Banner's old boss General Thunderbolt Ross (Sam Elliott as tough as Ferrigno himself, man!).
The changes make for a more effective viewing experience for the new viewer, but the added science in my opinion made for a less unique saga of Bruce Banner. The science of David Banner pretty much predetermined that Bruce would eventually have something monstrous happen to him before he died. Also, the concept of "Bruce Krenzler" later realizing he's actually Bruce Banner was rather unsettling to me. As his father turns out to be the guru of bad karma, why would Bruce ever want to use the name Banner? Does that make Krenzler his real name? Did Banner's Karma run over Krenzler's Dogma? I have to say that I'm not sure how else Lee (or Schamus) could have done the science aspect any better. We know that Gamma Rays alone don't turn mild mannered scientists into rejects from a Jolly Green Giant commercial, so something had to be done to make this bankable for the unwashed masses! The name thing, though... I still question.
The cast is universally great. I can't imagine a better Thunderbolt Ross than Elliott. He doesn't look a lot like Connelly, but he's perfect for the role. Bana isn't bad at all in the look of Banner! He portrays that geeky scientific exterior but remains sexy enough to be a guy who might snag the love of Betty Ross. It's unfortunate that he isn't able to be present through much of the film, as (in case you didn't know) his character is animated a fourth of the time, because he isn't bad. Some points of rage make him look a little comical, but who doesn't look funny when pissed? His dramatic performance is worth seeing though, and he isn't just a space-holder that any actor could be in this role, just waiting to turn green. Josh Lucas' (Sweet Home Alabama) performance as Talbot (think the 80's cartoon's Noodle Head Ned) would have seemed a bit of a over the top caricature if Nick Nolte hadn't also been in this movie! Nolte! Hully Gee! This guy was remarkable selling crazy like it was hotcakes. No he's not bad in the role, but he makes his character in Down and Out in Beverly Hills look like a well-groomed model of cleanliness and moderation. You can practically smell Nolte as he sleazes his way through the part. He has some emotional moments, but more often than not he seems like he's about to freak out all over Eduardo Murphy all over again in A completely different, third, new 48 Hours REHASH! Nolte is my new favorite freak out actor, making Billy Paxton himself seem calm and peaceful!
The biggest question here is not so much how Lee did, or how Bana did, or how hot Jennifer Connelly was... (scratch that last one, that is important) the real question is, how did the Hulk look? Did he look real, or did he look like a cartoon? Was he convincing? Well... yes he really was! I can see why a few have criticized how the Hulk looked in the preview (much of which hadn't completed Post Production), but aside from one or two minor polished moments the Hulk looks very, very real! Again, Lee has created a drama here, and to truly appreciate how amazing Industrial Light and Magic handled the big guy, you truly have to see his face close up (though not as close as me)! ILM and Lee spent so much time working on the Hulk's facial expressions for different emotions... no he's never happy but he does range from tender mercy, to love, to intense sorrow, to... well you guessed it, rage! Aside from the face, the Hulk really did move realistically as a beast of that size might. Ang Lee literally put himself into this role! The face is loosely based on Eric Bana's features (as it should be), but the movements are all achieved by motion capture using Ang Lee himself as the model. Lee dressed in the VR-style motion capture suit and acted out every scene for the computers so every move the Hulk makes is quite literally Ang Lee... not just his direction, but him! All told the animation was great, and on par with Yoda or Gollum, and he was much, much less of a cartoon than Josh Lucas' Talbot!
Was the Hulk himself accurate to the source material? For the most part, yes he was! There was a little too much Bruce left in the Hulk for this phase in his life, but truthfully, this wasn't a bad thing. This explained well why the Hulk has always cared tenderly for Betty, and protects her through thick and thin. There is a defense of Betty scene that has to be seen to be believed. His powers are very accurate as well, traveling by vast leaps and jumps rather than a brisk jog or (as many feared) flying like Superman! You really can't help but root for the big guy as he makes his evolution. He really never hurts any innocent people (or intentionally hurt any guilty people) and at one point endangers himself greatly to defend those he has no reason to defend. By the time we hear a signature Hulk line it's done in a way that actually avoids camp and cheese, and makes us all smile!
Aside from the nitpicks I already made (which again, are easily defensible) I was a little concerned about the lack of some other major characters. Where in gosh darn tarnation is Rick Jones? If there is any single human being more intertwined into the past, present and future of the Hulk Mythos than anyone else (including Betty!) it's Rick Jones. Instead we have bumbling Lab Assistant Harper (played by Kevin Rankin)! Why not call him "Jones"? What would be wrong with that? I've already mentioned the back story of the Hulk and how it isn't exactly Lee/ Kirby, but the really fascinating thing is what becomes of Bruce's father. I can't ruin that for you, but it's big... and it's strange. There is also a tendency from time to time in this film to state something major without any substantiation. Nolte has a few "because I said so" lines relating to some very sci-fi science that makes the viewer sort of wonder what our reason for just trusting him would be (especially when so much is covered in other areas). Implausibility shouldn't enter into such films, to be sure, but here, Lee takes such pains to make sure everything is realistic and believable that when something isn't you really notice! For example, during one amazing battle there is a nod to one of the best scenes of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon during which the Hulk leaps through the air and perches on a tree limb. Even though these are Giant Redwoods, I had to wonder how the weight of this 12 foot tall behemoth didn't break the bow and down would come Hulky, poodle-freak and all! At it's worst though, this film is still a comic book fan's dream come true (on most levels) and is more accurate in its worst Gregory Benford moment than the television show was.
All of the recent crop of Marvel adaptations have been ever so obviously set up for a sequel. Here Ang Lee breaks that new tradition and gives us what could be a purely stand alone film. Sure, it's open, and the (un-ruinable by me) ending is fantastic, but if they made no Hulk Sequels (yeah... right!) this one would be perfect as a stand alone project. Must everything be about a franchise? Yeah, because the Dollar is an even bigger green guy than the Hulk is, but in this one case, there was no explicit need for a sequel. Should there be one, let's hope its up to this par!
Four fat stars for Ang Lee's The Hulk. I might be one of the only reviewers that gives it such high praise, but I hope not! This really, truly is a good film, much more accurate than many, and much more dramatic than any! Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility shine through here and he shows himself equal parts action and drama. Thank heavens! I made it a point to see this with my favorite teenager... growing up her favorite comic book character was the Hulk himself, and after seeing this film, she loves him all the more. The fact that Alex liked it is an endorsement in and of itself. In the Easter Egg category, take a look for the two security guards at the lab Bruce and Betty are employed by... they're none other than Stan "The Man" Lee and Lou Ferrigno (who played the Hulk in the TV version). Stan's obviously happy enough with this movie (as am I), and I have to believe that up in heaven, Jack "King" Kirby has a bit of a grin too! Sure that might be hyperbolic, but we're talking the Hulk here! He's bigger than the Ponderosa! Will The Hulk be a smash? First weekend, sure... for the rest of the time? I just hope the people who need to see it do see it. And I can't wait to find out what Lee is going to give us next... he never makes the same film twice... Maybe we could convince him to add his spice to a version of The Merchant of Venice? Maybe it wouldn't be a marketing bonanza, but it would be in the J.C. Maçek III top ten! I'm off to reread Peter David and George Perez' Future Imperfect! You should too... but, um... watch The Hulk first!
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