There’s an assured poise to Ang Lee’s Hulk, a surprising trait to find in a film about an unwieldy green goliath with a penchant for decimating everything in sight. But the filmmaker, drawn to stories about people suppressing their fundamental desires in the name of propriety, has his monster (not to mention its introspective drama) firmly under control, displaying a directorial grace and fleetness that effortlessly blends chaotic combat with brooding complexity. Lee uses off-kilter wipes, pans, and dissolves, kinetic zooms and pull-backs, split screen, and picture-in-picture to turn his frame into a geometrically segmented comic-book page, a technique that compels viewers to follow the action from pane to pane as though they were witnessing a living, breathing work of hand-drawn art. It’s a unique visual experience, though one that eventually begins to wear on the viewer as the film barrels its way to its exhilarating finale. But if style occasionally overshadows story, Hulk has enough super-sized thrills and surprisingly affecting dramatic weight to make it the year’s most profound popcorn extravaganza.
Lee and longtime collaborator James Schamus (who co-scripted the film with Jon Turman and Michael France) have taken a pulp adventure—the story of a scientist named Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) who, through exposure to gamma radiation, is given the uncontrollable power to transform into the Hulk—and grounded it in the tradition of its literary forefathers. The behemoth is not merely the by-product of a freak accident; it is Banner’s Id, his raging, unstoppable dark side come to tremendous, havoc-wreaking life. A beast created by his father’s reckless genetic experimentation and unleashed upon the world through the anger caused by Bruce’s nightmarish repressed memories, the Hulk is a modern-day Mr. Hyde crossed with King Kong, colored in with shades of Cocteau’s Beast for good measure. Lee is wise to balance the creature’s furious rampages with tender moments of contemplative confusion, allowing his camera to linger on the Hulk’s deeply set eyes, which have a tenderness that infuse the character with a depth beyond its single-minded aggro impulses.
Though it’s a laboratory accident that triggers Bruce’s initial transformation, it’s the reappearance of his birth father (Nick Nolte) after 30 years in the army slammer that sets Lee’s Freudian battle in motion. Through DNA-alteration research on himself and his offspring, Nolte’s paternal baddie had sought “truth of self, to test God’s boundaries.” Now fearful that his son will fall into the hands of the military he loathes, dear old dad attempts to complicate Bruce’s quest for unity (both physical and psychological) by eliminating the meddlesome forces who would seek to help, or at least contain and control, the new-and-improved Bruce—namely, his son’s beautiful former girlfriend/co-worker Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly), who Nolte’s character sicks a pack of rabid Hulk Dogs (canines altered by Bruce’s DNA) after, and her father, the gruff, pragmatic General Ross (Sam Elliott).
Lee avoids what could have been a lucrative smash and grab (both in terms of plot and box office) by spending time—through a series of heartfelt scenes of human interaction—developing characters beyond simple plot outlines. Although Bana is given the thankless role of Bruce, a weak-kneed head case who’s overshadowed by his gigantic alter-ego, the invigorating rush of excitement that washes over his face when discussing his transformation (“Like a dream of rage, power, and freedom”) bestows the character with a streak of the forbidden; “Hulking out” becomes a visceral rebirth laced with slightly perverse sexual overtones. And one can understand a man’s bottled-up passions wanting to desperately break free in the constant presence of Ms. Connelly (she of the dark, soulful eyes), who once again imbues a damsel-in-distress role with an eloquently touching, conflicted heart.
Bruce and Betty both bear the scars of paternal neglect, and thus the duality at the heart of the story (between serenity and fury, expulsion and internalization) is given a romantic tint that fluently straddles the line separating sumptuous melodrama from campy ludicrousness. Theirs is a bond born from shared tragedy, and their return to the deserted military town in which both were raised—a wasteland of ’50s-era drive-ins and pastel-colored homes overrun by dust and decay—provides a subtle metaphor for both characters’ alienation from themselves, their pasts, and each other.
But despite Lee’s attention to (super)human dramatic dynamics, the film is lost without the Hulk himself, and it’s a relief to find that the monster is, in fact, much more than the man. A gargantuan slab of sculpted emerald muscle with both the brute strength of a tank and the speed and agility of a wildcat, the Hulk is a wondrous sight to behold for those who’ve always clamored for more than the television incarnation made famous by Lou Ferrigno in a funny wig and green body paint. Not nearly as expressive as The Two Towers’ Gollum—but not meant to be, given his one-dimensional drive to SMASH—the giant first appears under the cover of night, only to reemerge in ever-brighter environments, but the triumph is the ease with which Lee and his ILM cohorts seamlessly integrate the Hulk into the film’s diverse desert and downtown San Francisco landscapes (they don’t have nearly as much luck doing the same with Josh Lucas’s unnecessary and idiotic minor villain Glenn Talbot). The gorgeous Frankenstein-inspired moment in which the Hulk gazes upon his reflection in a pool of moonlit water, not to mention his tussle with a fighter jet atop the Golden Gate Bridge, more than make up for any minor technical deficiencies with regards to facial animation.
Hulk, however, boasts not one, but two animated characters, the more robust of which is offered up by Nick Nolte, whose scraggly white beard and unruly hair are reminiscent of the actor’s infamous disheveled mug shot. Nolte’s mad scientist is blinded from the consequences of his actions by a fanatical righteousness, and the veteran performer doles out a refreshing measure of diabolical insanity as a man driven to extremes by his limitless egotism. He’s Dr. Frankenstein reimagined as a bum, the bastard offspring of Dr. Mabuse and Nolte’s loveable hobo from Down and Out in Beverly Hills, and the vigor with which he devours the scenery shrewdly compliments the film’s more earnest preoccupations. Someone should give this man a franchise of his own—he’s a super-powered creature feature unto himself.