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A Fascinating Film, Just Not a Great "Comic Book Movie"
, May 15, 2012
This review is from: Hulk [Blu-ray] (Blu-ray)
It's hard to imagine that there has been or ever will be a super-hero movie that divides as many viewers as Ang Lee's ambitious 2003 filming of THE HULK.
From the pre-release buzz about how Lee had taken a revisionist tact with the origin of the Stan Lee-Jack Kirby Marvel comic book hero, to the first, fleeting -- and unfinished -- glimpses of the all-CGI green one during the Super Bowl, the comics-to- movie community had been eagerly awaiting, and debating, the big-budget film. Early reactions ranged from utter disgust to complete and total admiration, which brings me to my thoughts on the film -- one which ended up being sent to the Marvel scrap heap in lieu of a 2008 movie that pretended (basically) this film never happened.
Before I dive into specifics, I can say that I was first appalled when I heard about the concept of Lee and James Schamus' version. Having grown up on the old Bill Bixby-Lou Ferrigno show, plus the various cartoon incarnations, the idea that Bruce Banner became the Hulk courtesy of his father's attempts to play God, to the mystery surrounding his mother's death, to the Hulk being able to leap tall buildings with a single bound -- all of them were pretty hard to swallow considering my youthful memories of the Incredible Hulk.
While what Lee and Schamus (along with credited co-writers Michael France and John Turman) have come up with is at times too dark for its own good, and is overly bogged down in psychological aspects that don't quite come off, THE HULK is still an ambitious, flawed, but always watchable combination of silly, colorful Marvel Comics action and a study of parents and children and what makes us all tick.
Sound like a jumbled mess? Well, it works better than you might have heard. Eric Bana essays Bruce Banner, a California research scientist who works alongside former lover Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly) in a lab for their betterment of mankind. Their work, though, spurs interest from Josh Lucas, who represents an "evil corporation" that's also associated with Betty's military dad (Sam Elliott). Enter Bruce's long-lost father (Nick Nolte, appropriately disheveled in one of his best performances in years), who has tracked down his son and wants to make good on the experiments he believes are trapped in his son's DNA. Obviously, it's just a matter of time before Bruce is ticked off and his transformation into the Hulk occurs.
When it does, it's a triumph of CGI animation on the part of Industrial Light & Magic, who have fully captured the look and movement of a comic book character on-screen. Unlike the tempering of the X-Men's physical characteristics (i.e. their subdued uniforms), ILM's Hulk isn't a compromise -- it's the animated character captured in its full, colorful glory, and while some may carp that the Hulk doesn't look "real" (as if a 20- foot green creature ever could), I found ILM's work to be tremendous here. The Hulk's facial animation is nothing short of outstanding (he's certainly more emotive than Bana's bland Banner), like a combination of Frankenstein's monster and Ferrigno's old muscular creation, and the level of detail in the creature is astounding.
That aspect of the movie brings with it some completely absurd sequences -- like the Hulk's battle with gamma-radiated dogs -- but they're completely in tune with the kind of action that anyone who grew up reading Marvel Comics will appreciate seeing on-screen. This Hulk does have the ability to leap into the sky, bound off cliffs and ledges, and dismantle anything that comes in his way, but the FX are great and Lee builds the dramatic conflict between father and son up enough that the movie works if you're willing to meet it halfway -- especially in its almost-indescribable, completely "comic book" final confrontation between the two.
Getting to that point does require some patience, as Lee spends a great deal of time establishing the relationships between nutty old man Banner and his bottled up son, not to mention Betty Ross and her military father. It's a little heavy-handed and slow-going at times, but you have to applaud the filmmakers for trying to establish characters and drama in a movie that ultimately turns more outlandish than any comic book film in recent memory.
Nolte's ultimately over-the-top performance goes for broke and fits the movie perfectly, as does Elliott's excellent work as Ross' father. Bana and Connelly are OK but don't have much chemistry with one another, and the former is completely overshadowed by the Hulk once the muscular one takes over. One failing of the film is its notable lack of humor -- there should have been an additional supporting player on-hand for the audience to identify with, since every character is overly brooding and wrapped up in the story.
Visually, THE HULK benefits from Frederick Elmes' fine cinematography and the use of comic book-styled "panels" that keep reminding the viewer that you're watching a comic book movie -- even if the Shakespearian aspects of the script sometimes clash with its pulpy pedigree.
Danny Elfman's music, meanwhile, is always serviceable but comes off as uninspired for the composer, sounding like a compromise between what Lee reportedly wanted (is there some point to the female vocalist who wails away on the soundtrack?) and a by-the- numbers Elfman score that has "auto-pilot" written all over it (the furious "lab montage" motifs reminiscent of "Darkman," the dark and brooding "Batman"-like aspects, the "Planet of the Apes" percussion, etc). While I wasn't a huge fan of Elfman's solid but unremarkable work on "Spider-Man", THE HULK unquestionably sounds like the result of one too many trips to the same well for the composer.
THE HULK is decidedly uneven but constantly surprising and, in the end, highly satisfying from a number of angles. It's a movie that takes a lot of risks and encompasses a wide range of emotions, and while some are more successful than others, it's certainly one of the most audacious attempts at creating a live-action comic-book that can sustain the interest of both adults and kids. Even with its shortcomings, it's a strongly recommended view.
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