Of all the big name superheroes Marvel has to offer, HULK is one of the easiest to gravitate to. It's not hard to find what makes him appealing. Superficially, he is an unstoppable raging behemoth whose strength is rarely matched. This alone would be an obvious foundation for a film franchise. What is surprising (and ultimately refreshing) about this one is its willingness to explore the depth of the Hulk's dilemma. If the film's jade giant were absent from this movie, its story could still be the frame for another.
The movie starts with an army scientist named David Banner who performs genetic experiments for the government. He carries one out on himself before fathering his son Bruce. After a few years into Bruce's childhood, a tragic event occurs, which results in David's incarceration for 30 years and separation from his son.
Upon maturing, Bruce also becomes a scientist. Instead of his father's obsession with genetics, he develops a fascination for gamma rays and nano-med (almost subatomic medicinal) technology. He becomes victim of a lab accident that unleashes the Hulk; partly due to genetic mutation he inherited from his father, who just happens to work on the base as janitor, recently released from his sentence. To make things more interesting, Banner's co-scientist, Betty Ross is his former flame. And she just happens to be the daughter of General Ross, the man who jailed David Banner during his family's tragedy. It is this terrible event that holds the key to why Bruce transforms to his monstrous side, and to how their reunion will end.
The movie starts slow, with admirable character development. By the time the Hulk appears, everyone's motivations are known with each personality sharply distinguished. Ang Lee loves showing humanity and human frailty in his stories as he has done exceptionally in EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN, THE WEDDING BANQUET, SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, and THE ICE STORM. We discover the hidden storylines, the human aspects that can be just as interesting as the action. We discover that Bruce and Betty have both had fathers that they could never count on (that's probably what brought them together). We see David Banner and General Ross not primarily as power hungry males, but as caring fathers as well. We experience Bruce Banner's awkwardness and inability to express himself adequately, which makes us understand all the more why he begins to `enjoy' transforming into his raging alter-id.
Though it's true that the Hulk doesn't appear until 45 minute into the movie, once he does, the action hardly stops. Sure there are scenes of destruction, but they are calculated, punctuating turning points in the movie, instead of bombarding the audience as mayhem in others. The backdrops upon which these action sequences are set upon are breathtaking. The battles rage from an underground base, to the vast majestic Monument Valley landscape, all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge and even to the very stratosphere. I can still vividly recall Images of the Hulk clashing with `hulk-dogs' in the California Redwood forests and him being chased by helicopter gunships in a concave rock formation in the Arizona desert.
People remember Ang Lee for CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON, which many consider (present company included) to be the greatest martial arts picture ever made. It left such big shoes to fill, even for Lee (At one point TIME Magazine labeled him, `America's Best Director'). Those who recall CROUCHING TIGER remember its sublime images of combat, but what set it apart in its genre was its poetic character involvement. We cared deeply for Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien, for their values, and for their quest for the green destiny. Lee does the same for HULK. In exposing its characters to danger, he wishes to reveal the gravity of their situations. Hardly ever does anyone utter a mutter a snappy line, emote a mushy sentiment, or deliver a cliche expression.
Compare Bruce Banner's discovery of his newfound abilities with Peter Parker's (of SPIDER-MAN). He reacts with deep fear and confusion, whereas Parker reacts with excitement and exhilaration. The latter may be more amiable for audiences, but if I found out that I was growing microscopic claws on my fingertips and spewing webbing from my wrists, I'd be freaking out. Spider-Man has the comfort of shooting off a few quips along with his webs as he confronts his foes. Banner, along with other characters in HULK have no such luxury. The movie is not without joy though. It has several humorous moments, none of them in a light-hearted sense though.
It should be said that this picture was blessed with a great cast. Eric Bana (BLACK HAWK DOWN & CHOPPER), who has star written all over him, conveys inner turmoil-slash-solidity very effectively as Bruce Banner. The ever-beautiful Jennifer Connelly reprises her wife-of-a-brilliant-but-mentally-unstable-scientist role from A BEAUTIFUL MIND as Betty Ross. I thought her main purpose was to appear as a captivating yet unreachable beauty for both Banner and the Hulk, and she serves her role perfectly. Nick Nolte has to my mind never given a bad performance, and he appears valuably scruffy and deceivingly two-faced as David Banner (he could be confused for one of the hulk-dogs). But of all of the main players, Sam Elliot (THE CONTENDER, WE WERE SOLDIERS, & THE BIG LEBOWSKI) impressed me the most with his controlled and palpable intensity as General Ross. At one point, with his glistening complexion and bulging neck veins, he looked more intimidating than the Hulk.
The movie has a lot of other assets. It has a memorable score by Danny Elfman (who also did BATMAN and SPIDER-MAN). It has beautiful cinematography by Frederick Elmes (THE ICE STORM). It has wondrous visualization by using split-screens like window panes in comic books, such as several angles in one shot, or one window opening up into another (this is the most inventive use of the technique since Brian De Palma's FEMME FATALE). It also has buried moments of lyrical dueling between different characters. When Betty Ross says, `You weren't that hard to find.' and Banner retorts `Yes I was.' that instant carried a greater emotional weight. You'll understand it once you see it.
Fans of the Hulk (like me) will be familiar with the several storylines that have been amalgamated into the screenplay, one of them being David Banner, who is Bruce's character in THE INCREDIBLE HULK TV series (speaking of which, Lou Ferrigno, who portrayed the TV Hulk, appears in a cameo with Stan Lee). The rest I leave up to the `Hulksters'. But for all the pluses that HULK has, the ones that I will take home with me are its ideas. That the Hulk is not just rage, he is pure innocence. He only smashes when provoked. He is a near mindless brute, but when calm, he is a child. He smites tanks that fire at him as a toddler would kick a toy after tripping over it.
As a character, the Hulk is the ultimate childlike id, the source of all instinctual impulses and demands for immediate satisfaction of primitive needs. As a film, THE HULK is the most introspective of the Marvel superhero movies that have come out so far. The X-MEN films have had the disadvantage of having too many characters, resulting in too many protagonists to follow. SPIDER-MAN and the BLADE movies were all about entertainment. Many comic book films barely touch on their themes, but HULK actually wants to deal with the issues it raises. No wonder I gravitate to it.