You were expecting maybe Crouching Bixby, Hidden Ferrigno? Blessedly — and despite a cameo by Ferrigno as a security guard and variants on “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry” — this film is about as far removed from the campy TV show as you’re likely to get.
Viewed strictly from the standpoint of a film buff (and with no special interest in the comic books or the TV series), Hulk (the film drops the The) is a brilliantly flawed gem, and nothing like the groan-inducing trailers that have heralded its approach. It’s also very much a film that is likely to alienate a great deal of its target audience simply because it’s more adept at being a character study than it is at being a comic-book action flick. And that’s ironic because director Ang Lee is the first filmmaker to hit upon a method of effectively bringing the feel of a comic book to the big screen.
Tim Burton got near that sense in his two Batman movies — especially Batman Returns — by creating a series of striking images that looked like comic-book panels. Yet Burton’s images, too, often smacked of a photographed storyboard. Lee manages something quite different by breaking his film up into an array of split-screen panels, often showing the same scene from more than one angle; this effectively captures the actual look and approach of a comic book. His technique is deilberately obvious — and, sure, it constantly reminds you that you’re watching a movie. But this is also the most wholly satisfying use of split-screen I’ve ever seen (and, no, I’m not forgetting the best of Abel Gance, Rouben Mamoulian, Peter Greenaway or even Brian De Palma).
There was a degree of the expected kvetching from comic-book purists when Lee was announced as helming this movie. You know the sort of thing — “What does the director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Wedding Banquet know about comic books?” The fact is that he knew very little; but as is sometimes the case, that actually worked in his favor. What did Richard Lester know about rock music when he made A Hard Day’s Night? What did Ken Russell know about that same subject when he made Tommy? The answer in both cases was not much — and, as a result, those directors brought a freshness to the material that gave us something new and vibrant and alive.
And so it is with Lee, who has looked at the comic book with something you’d hardly expect — a sense of discovery. The first hour of Hulk, with its brilliant use of split-screen panels, clever scene transitions and careful character development — all bolstered by one of Danny Elfman’s finest scores — is as good as or better than anything I’ve seen this year. The film’s notion of taking the story to its Jekyll and Hyde roots (and, in the process, echoing such modern devil-inside-me takes as Altered States, which Hulk both visually and thematically evokes) is a good one. So is structuring the film with a sense of mystery — giving us little glimmerings of the bigger picture throughout the film prior to telling us the whole story at once.
That Lee and the screenwriters chose to fasten onto a story line that is more about father-child relationships than it is about 800 pounds of big, green monster trashing buildings is also admirable, even if you do come away from the movie thinking, “These people have some serious Daddy issues.” Neither Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) nor Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly) have fathers (Nick Nolte and Sam Elliott respectively) of the sort that Hallmark makes cards for. Thematically, that’s very interesting — especially since so much of the Hulk’s appeal for kids is the sense of empowerment in releasing the pent-up rage of adolescence. But this also makes Hulk a somewhat unsettling film — and far from a viewer-friendly one, if your expectations all center around the green fellow wreaking havoc. And that creates a potential problem for the film’s target audience.
Hulk fans may have yet another gripe with the film as it stands: the more traditional action scenes. Once the big guy appears in all his CGI glory, Lee’s creativity seems to drop several notches. The fact that the computer-graphics work is extremely variable doesn’t help. Disguising some of this by shooting one big scene — the Hulk battling some mutant dogs — so dark that it’s hard to tell what’s going on doesn’t help; it just looks like a dodge. But there’s a bigger problem still — and one that no one involved apparently knew how to get around: The Hulk on a rampage is a pretty limited concept, and even a scene where the big boy trashes his lab like a really big Charles Foster Kane tearing up his wife’s bedroom doesn’t change this. Neither does the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach taken with his attack on San Francisco.
Including the comic-book concept of the Hulk being able to virtually jump entire continents in a single bound wasn’t the best idea, either. It works in a frozen panel, but on the screen it’s … well, more funny than effective. As a result, Hulk is cursed with a finale that just seems to go on and on and on, doing the same things over and over well beyond their entertainment value. It’s as if the movie is suddenly some kind of fascinating dinner guest who just won’t leave. By the final fade-out, I was more than ready for it to be over — a particularly sad thing for a movie that had me glued to the screen for its first half.
What’s good about Lee’s movie isn’t just good, it’s great. It’s just unfortunate that the film as a whole can’t live up to its own early standard.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke