Film and TV

Mutant Strain

He's twelve feet tall. He's ripped. He's quick as a tiger and fierce as a dragon. Lit to a dull green glow by his fury, the guy is sheer, boundless power. Any NFL team you can think of would love to start him at middle linebacker. But as art-house director Ang Lee would have it, this outsized, computer-generated, big-screen version of The Hulk is also a sensitive bundle of repressed childhood traumas fomented by his megalomaniacal father. So to write him off simply as a big lug who can run a hundred miles per hour and tear the turret off a tank with his bare hands, and to see him as just another summer-blockbuster super hero, would be to misunderstand, well, his existential dilemma, his very soul. Any movie that costs $150 million to make, Lee seems to be telling us, ought to come with at least ten bucks' worth of deep thinking.

To that end, the man who gave us Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm before he gave us the high-flying, Oscar-winning antics of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has injected The Hulk not only with a fateful shot of mutant DNA, but with full doses of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Nutty Professor, a dash of leftover Joseph Conrad and an entire casebook of Freudian insecurities. Compared to the vivid Marvel comic books that introduced the man-monster in 1962, or the popular '70s TV series, which brought the fantasy to an even wider public, Lee's movie is downright "philosophical." Too often, the fun stops there.

While millions of Matrix cultists spend their summers decoding a big new chunk of Hollywood cosmology, Lee and three screenwriters (John Turman, Michael France and longtime Lee collaborator James Schamus) provide some pseudo-science and solemn pop mythology of their own. They start with the deeply divided hero, Bruce Banner (the unremarkable Eric Bana, late of Chopper). Thanks to his scientist-father's past fiddlings and an accidental zap of gamma rays down at the lab, the nerdy Berkeley geneticist is -- after being angered once too often -- about to discover the torment and exaltation of his uncontrollable alter ego. We've also got Nick Nolte, looking like he spent the week in custody, as the messianic, lost-and-found father, David Banner, who is still obsessed with his experiments and given to raving about "the pale religions of civilization that have infected humanity."

The pivotal new wrinkle here involves poor, bottled-up Bruce's love interest, a fellow scientist named Betty Ross (A Beautiful Mind's Jennifer Connelly). Whip-smart, Betty sees all and knows all (including the secret of Bruce's metamorphosis), but she, too, has issues. Her father, it turns out, is a ruthless, emotionally inadequate Army general (Sam Elliott) who doesn't give a damn about her but cares plenty about hooking up the National Security Agency and an evil corporation called Atheon (godless, no doubt) in a plot to exploit Bruce/Hulk for their own purposes. Is this plot element a miscalculation, or an act of defiance? In any case, it's odd. In a time when American approval of government and the military is soaring (at least the polls say it is), these moviemakers have returned to the wary, even paranoid, view of the military-industrial complex that characterized earlier science-fiction fantasies. Is it going too far to speculate that Lee and company have hidden a political parable (a second personality!) about the indiscriminate use of official power inside their summer movie? To be sure, Lee wants us to know he's no mere hack, but a fellow conversant with all the realms of human thought and striving.

Still, he knows who buys the popcorn at the multiplex, so he also dutifully stages the "money shots." The big action setpieces here include the computerized green monster's satisfyingly destructive breakout from a secret underground Army base, a battle with slavering mutant dogs and a visit to San Francisco during which he tears up several blocks of pavement and tosses a cable car onto the sidewalk. Lee also mounts his own version of Desert Storm, in which Hulk bounces from butte to butte like a huge blob of Flubber, swatting helicopter gunships out of the air. Lee and his technicians rarely let up on the technical flash. There are lots of bewildering split-screen effects straight out of the '60s, a surplus of flashbacks, plenty of morphing and an array of oozy, multicolored hallucinations intended, we must assume, to express the conflicted agony in Bruce/Hulk's mind and the molecular rage inside his body. Leave it to preachy Banner Sr. to explain things: "You are nothing more than a husk of flimsy consciousness." Okay, but the husk could do with a gallon of Maalox about now.

Some Marvel fans and die-hard devotees of Lou Ferrigno, the bodybuilder who played The Hulk on TV (and who does a brief walk-on here) may find Ang Lee's whole enterprise grandiose and, given its not-always-successful attempt to fuse brains and brawn, a little bit silly. Certainly, the climactic pitched battle between mutant father and mutant son, joined in a mountain lake, tries for Greek or Shakespearean classicism, but it comes off as cartoon. In the end, The Hulk seems as unhappily divided in its nature as Bruce Banner himself. Art and entertainment don't always get along. Still, in the very last shot, Lee takes pains to suggest -- heaven help us -- a sequel. We can only hope it answers one vital philosophical question. To wit: Whenever Bruce violently expands into the Hulk, he bursts out of his undersized wardrobe. Tell us now, how does the big guy always wind up in a pair of perfectly fitting blue shorts?

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo