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Tonight's Feature Presentation

HULK (2003)

Starring: Eric Bana, Nick Nolte, Jennifer Connelly, Sam Elliott, Josh Lucas

Written By: John Turman, Michael France, James Schamus (also story) Directed By: Ang Lee

The Short Version

A visionary director completely messes up this screen take on a comic book icon.

Was Ang Lee sure which movie he really wanted to make?  He tried and failed at two here.

Eric Bana just does not work as Bruce Banner.

Why was it called Hulk again?  I only saw a green Smurf.

Hulk is one comic book hero flick that should have gone back to the drawing board.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


Is it supposed to be hard or is it supposed to be soft?  No one could decide, so they went for both!  Either way, it’s definitely got holes in it.

Pairs Well With...


Couldn't resist.  It’s two ounces each of Hpnotiq and Cognac (Hennesey being the recommendation for the latter), chilled.  Of course it’s green.

“I’m sorry, son.  You’re an even more screwed up mess than I thought you’d be.”

When it was announced that Ang Lee, the visionary director riding high on his success with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, would be taking the helm for the big screen interpretation of Hulk, reaction was mixed with leanings toward positive.  On the one hand, some wondered if a man known best for art house style filmmaking would be able to faithfully interpret the brutal, no-nonsense comic book icon that is the Hulk.  On the other, the reply came, why not?  The man’s obviously got amazing talent.

Then Hulk actually came out.  On the one hand, it did make over $60 million on its opening weekend.  On the other, that weekend was followed up by a nearly 70% drop in ticket sales for the one that followed, which was at the time the single biggest drop off for a Number One movie in box office history.  Yeah, it ended up turning a profit eventually, but the message from audiences was loud and clear: people did not like Hulk, and they were not making return trips to see it again.

It doesn’t take a lot of effort to see why.  Before we get into that, though, let’s have a look at the story, or at least a condensed version of how the mess starts.

As the credits roll, we see a man whom we will eventually come to know as Dr. David Banner (Nick Nolte, Breakfast of Champions) doing some sort of scientific experiments involving starfish.  Getting a glimpse at his notes, we see that the thing he’s most interested in is regeneration and immunity. 

Once the credits are done rolling, we find that Banner is in fact working with the military, but he’s on a short leash.  Denied access to human subjects for his experiments, he decides to experiment on himself, injecting himself with a serum that alters his DNA.  Soon after, a complication arises: it seems that Banner has made his wife pregnant.  What, he wonders, might he have passed on to Bruce, his son-to-be?

Thanks to a prison stint, it will take him over thirty years to find out.

Flash forward that amount of time.  The baby we knew as Bruce Banner grew up to be Bruce Krenzler (Eric Bana, Star Trek), who works in a lab at UC-Berkeley and was raised to believe that his birth parents were both killed when he was a little boy.  He’ll soon learn otherwise, however, and when an accident involving a rapid healing prototype and gamma radiation occurs, the monster that has been lying dormant in Bruce’s blood for all of those years suddenly awakens.

Once that happens, it becomes advisable to avoid making Bruce angry.  You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry…

If one were asked to come up with a single word to describe a movie about the world’s most dangerous angry man, sight unseen, the first word to come to mind probably wouldn’t be “boring.”

If one were then asked to come up with an additional three word phrase to describe a movie about the world’s most dangerous angry man, sight unseen, the first phrase to come to mind probably wouldn’t be “a real downer.”

Once one has actually watched Ang Lee’s Hulk, however, it becomes another matter entirely.

This is really unfortunate, because somewhere underneath the 138 minute mess that is Hulk, there’s real potential for something great, given a massive rewrite, and at that point, maybe Ang Lee might have been the man to do it.  As it stands, though, Hulk tries to go too many places at once, and Lee just can’t decided which side of the road to drive on.

It’s obvious enough that what Lee really wants to do is explore the inner conflict of Bruce Banner; the torment of being the Hulk that makes his power into a curse.  It’s this sort of story that made Lee seem like a good fit for Hulk, as dramatic stories of human emotions are something he’d had success with before.  For those who do end up enjoying Hulk, this is invariably the part that they latch onto, and indeed, it has the greatest potential of any single element of the script.

Unfortunately, the script has a few more elements.  Like a guy who can take on the form of anything he touches, including pools of water or bolts of electricity.

When you’re trying to convey the inner drama and turmoil of a man with the world’s most serious anger management issues, it’s probably best not to water things down with another dude who randomly picks up super powers as he goes along and eventually turns into a literal living bolt of lightning.  There’s only one type of movie that this works in.  It’s called anime.

But then again, there are many times when it seems that anime is exactly the type of movie that Ang Lee set out to make.  Oops.

Lee deliberately opted to use split screen presentations for a large number of scenes in this movie (and I do mean a lot), with the intention of mimicking the panels of a comic book page.  He also eschews standard cuts and fades in favor of zoom, slide, and stepped superimposition transitions when it comes to editing the film, with the end result resembling nothing so much as an episode of “Voltron,” with the possible exception of a really bad Powerpoint presentation.  All other things aside, the results of both of these decisions are remarkably annoying, and make the film look like it was edited by freshman film student who was suddenly allowed to play with a new toy in the form of an editing suite, as opposed to being the work of gifted professionals.  It’s nothing if not headache-inducing.  Stepping beyond the Excedrin grabs, these visual presentation choices also create an atmosphere that is as far away as possible from the dramatic story that Hulk is supposedly engaged in telling.  In using these campy editing techniques atop his serious story, Lee tries to have his cake and eat it, too, but in a dramatic movie with live actors, it just doesn’t work.

And then there’s that other small detail that takes away from the dramatic story being played out by the live actors; namely, the multimillion dollar cartoons that keep showing up.

It’s said that one of the reasons that Hulk spent twelve years in Development Hell was to allow technology sufficient time to reach a level capable of presenting the title character well as a CGI effect.  Given what shows up on the screen, they didn’t wait long enough.  A lot of talented people went to a ridiculous amount of expense and put in over a year and a half’s worth of work at rendering the Hulk, and I do salute their effort, but at the end of the day, what they came up with looks like nothing so much as a big green Smurf.  This chubby-faced cartoon is just plain embarrassing to look at even when he’s not set next to a flesh-and-blood actor for comparison, and when he is… I hate to use the word “pathetic,” but really, it’s what fits.  Despite all of the work put into him, he’s no more effective in the real world than Roger Rabbit; indeed, because everyone else has to take him so seriously, he ends up being even less so.

It’s hard to sell a dramatic tragedy when your tragic hero’s problem is that he turns into Monster Smurf when he gets mad.  And when Monster Smurf has to fight the Monster Pound Puppies (which spontaneously explode into green mist after a while for no apparent reason; yay for the deus ex machina of “being unstable”), the results actually cross the line that brings the scene into the realm of stupidity.

A story with as much potential as Hulk has deserves so much better than that.

Frighteningly enough, it gets even more ridiculous, thanks to Mr. Lightning Man mentioned above.  I remember walking out of the theatre back when Hulk was released thinking that I’d just witnessed the dumbest climax I’d ever seen in a superhero movie.  Eight extra years and a fresh look have not changed my mind.

Alas, even without the campy editing and cartoonish CGI, Hulk still wouldn’t have worked.

It’s tempting to blame Eric Bana, who seems horrendously miscast as Bruce Banner.  For someone whose character is supposed to be tormented by swings of emotion, Bana plays him with almost no range.  He seems limited to either “mopey depressed” or “bitter depressed”, and his expressions only travel from “I have to go to the bathroom” for most scenes to “I really have to go to the bathroom” for when he’s allegedly so mad that he’s on the verge of Hulking out.  The performance is, frankly, tediously boring to watch, and given the attention that Lee is paying to Bruce’s angst, it becomes a long-distance endurance race.  (To say that twenty minutes could easily have been hacked from this flick is to be conservative.)  However, Ang Lee himself may be the ultimate culprit.  Eric Bana would later describe the shooting atmosphere of Hulk as “ridiculously serious and morbid,” and given the kind of direction that would bring about that atmosphere, Bana might not have had much choice in how played the role.

This supposition is backed up by watching Jennifer Connelly (Labyrinth), who is normally a treat in any film, but who is so reserved here that she seems almost like a statue in a peasant blouse for most of the film, only allowed the luxury of real expression in two scenes tops.  Anyone who’s seen her work knows there’s more to her than this; that’s got to be a directorial choice.

So, in case you were wondering how a movie can be both too silly and overbearingly depressing at the same time, now you know.

The only two people who really come out of Hulk unscathed are Sam Elliot (Tombstone) as “Thunderbolt” Ross and Nick Nolte as the progressively more and more insane David Banner.  Indeed, Nolte steals the show every chance he gets; it’s just unfortunate that his character is made to turn from someone genuinely interesting into perhaps the single most asinine element of the entire film.

Come to think of it, even if someone had managed to overrule things and pare down the script to just its dramatic storyline instead of the anime-style stuff, maybe Ang Lee wouldn’t have been the best choice to direct after all.  As it actually does stand with no changes, I don’t think anyone could have saved this movie.  Not with that script, and not with the woefully inadequate CGI effects that turn the Hulk into Monster Smurf.

Bottom line, there’s a reason that most people like to forget that Hulk ever happened.  This became even easier with the arrival of a vastly superior sequel five years later, and if you want to see the big green guy in action, that’s the flick I suggest you see.  This one’s just too much of a mess, combining a depressingly played live action story with campy editing and CGI effects that look so bad they truly cross the line of stupidity.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, November, 2011

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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