Movie review: 'The Hulk'

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3 1/2 stars (out of 4)

"Hulk smash!"

That's the famous battle cry of Stan Lee's Marvel Comics super-antihero the Hulk, the huge, green mutant monster bursting from the damaged psyche and DNA of gentle scientist Bruce Banner. But it might also serve as the picture's tag line - and this time, the hyperbole fits.

The movie, a version of Lee's formidable comic creation (a tortured '60s product of the Cold War and science gone wrong), was directed by Taiwanese-American filmmaker Ang Lee (no relation). And it's a corker - big, exciting, opulently designed, gorgeously shot and blessed with a top cast, including Sam Elliott as Gen. "Thunderbolt" Ross, Jennifer Connelly as Hulk inamorata Betty Ross, Josh Lucas as romantic rival Glenn Talbot, Nick Nolte as sinister father David Banner, and Australian newcomer Eric Bana as the green, mean fighting machine. This is a film almost as volatile and contradictory as the Hulk himself.

Can the worlds of Stan Lee and Ang Lee coexist without blowing apart at the seams? They're an odd match: the comic book scribe extraordinaire (creator of "The Hulk," "Spider-Man," "X-Men," "Daredevil" and many others) and the director of a string of finely crafted but diverse films (from "The Wedding Banquet" and "Sense and Sensibility" to "Ride With the Devil" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"). But apparently these two can make music together - even though, like the film's hot-tempered but sympathetic title character, the movie is at war with itself, popping and seething with inner demons.

Working from a script by his longtime collaborator, producer-writer James Schamus, A. Lee takes S. Lee's legend of the Hulk and tries to pack in as much angst and emotional torment as he does tricky CGI effects and slam-bang action. The movie, without sacrificing the usual roller-coaster thrills, digs deeper into the dark night of Hulk's soul than you would have thought possible.

Back in 1962, the Hulk - a mixture of Frankenstein's monster, Jekyll and Hyde, and all those radiation-blasted freaks from '50s drive-in horror shows - came into being when scientist Bruce Banner raced into a nuclear test site to save an errant hot-rodder and wound up irradiated into a terrifying creature. Under stress, Banner would suddenly morph into the hot-tempered brawler Hulk, who resembled a 700-pound Frankenstein's monster garbed for a TV wrestling match and was prone to berserk tantrums at a moment's notice.

Here, in an updated version mostly set in Berkeley, Calif., the Hulk is shown instead as the product of DNA experiments decades back by Bruce Banner's scientist dad, David. This computerized and deliberately cartoonish Hulk is bigger and scarier, green, mean, 15 feet tall, 1,500 pounds and, thanks to CGI, wonderfully realized. The other main characters come straight from the '60s Marvel Comics mythos. Gen. Ross is Bruce's blustering, bullying ultra-macho nemesis, running the hush-hush program. Ross' daughter Betty is Bruce's loving but conflicted girlfriend. And Maj. Glenn Talbot is Bruce's dirty-dealing romantic rival.

These characters are not so much modernized as intensified. They're played at the highest possible pitch, none more than Nolte's David. Brow furrowed, eyes haunted, a secretive, ex-con janitor dragging himself though the movie's Berkeley sets like a homeless demon, Nolte (who has achieved a shaggy majesty in recent years) makes David a vision of fury and shame. He reveals the truth and himself to his son at the precise moment when Bruce's buried past (in nightmares and provocations from Ross and Talbot) comes crashing in on him.

Once this happens, "Hulk" becomes, like the comics before it, a series of grisly cliffhangers and battles, the most spectacular of which are staged in the Utah desert and above Frisco Bay between Hulk and Thunderbolt's military. Steadily increasing in scope and violence, they drive the movie to a massive closing crescendo. Almost all of it works, with the possible exception of the too-cute-by-half ironic climax.

The idea of the Hulk, and the appeal of its fantasy, comes from the relish we may all secretly take in unleashing anger, as long as there are no consequences - and as long as we can blame it on our "other self." Throughout, A. Lee doesn't subvert or modernize so much as deepen and magnify those ideas; he's so clean and precise a director that when he gives way to chaos, it carries a double whammy.

The movie, filled with shock cuts and multiple frames, looks and "reads" like a comic book, and that includes the complex, stylized realization of the Hulk himself. Throughout, Schamus hews closely to S. Lee's legend while expanding and embellishing it. "Hulk" is a formidably ambitious attempt to fuse high psychological drama with mass audience thrills and spectacle. And if it's not totally successful, perhaps too dark and anguished for some, it's still the most interesting comic-book movie epic since Tim Burton's 1989 epic "Batman."

Both "Batman" and the '78 "Superman" surprised us by using brilliant stars like Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman in secondary roles, emphasizing their hammy sides. So, in a way, does this more serious and anguished "Hulk." All the actors give performances beyond the call of comic-book movie duty. Bana, an Aussie comic who was impressive as the charismatic serial killer in "Chopper," gives Bruce the right aching confusion. Elliott is the acme of spit-and-polish macho military arrogance.

In the last few years, with the exception of the lurid, frenetic "Daredevil," the Marvel Comics movies have become the Tiffany of comic-book movie epics, just as Pixar sets the bar for computerized feature cartoons. That's true here, too. Though some will complain that "Hulk" is too dark and serious, they're missing Ang Lee's point - and Stan Lee's as well. "Hulk" is a movie likely to rally huge audiences who want to take another roller coaster ride. And though it may disappoint a few of them, it's also a film that gives you something to think and feel sad about. It smashes you - gently.

"The Hulk"
Directed by Ang Lee; written by James Schamus, John Turman, Michael France, based on the comic and character created by Stan Lee; photographed by Frederick Elmes; edited by Tim Squyres; production designed by Rick Heinrichs; music by Danny Elfman; produced by Gale Anne Hurd, Avi Arad, Schamus, Larry Franco. Executive-produced by S. Lee, Kevin Feige; A Universal Pictures release; opens Friday, June 20. Running time: 2:18. MPAA rating: PG-13 (comic-book violence).
Bruce Banner/The Hulk - Eric Bana
Betty Ross - Jennifer Connelly
Ross - Sam Elliott
Father/David Banner - Nick Nolte
Talbot - Josh Lucas
Young David Banner - Paul Kersey
Security Guards - Lou Ferrigno, Stan Lee

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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