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REVIEW: 'The Hulk'

This review contains minor spoilers

Comic book movies. What are they? Are comics-to-film a genre? What is thefilmmakers' task in creating a comic book movie? These seem to be the questionsfilmmakers stumble on from time-to-time.

One school of thought is that comic book movies are, in fact, a genre andthat, when adapting a comic book, you should not only adapt the stories andconcepts, but the "comic booky-ness" of it as well. You adapt themedium.

This gives way to things like the "Batman" TV show, with the voiceover narration standing in for the captions found on the comic book page, andgraphics reading "BAM," "POW" and "ZAP" appearingon the screen, obscuring the action.

Another example is the "Dick Tracy" movie in which all art designwas mandated to be in four colors, just like the comic strips.

This thinking generally leads to some miserable film fare. After all, why usesound effect graphics when you can actually use audible sound effects? Why tryto enforce a four-color palette, when you have a much greater variety (or lack,if black and white is your choice) of colors as a filmmaker? Isn't a big, redwrench distracting?

When adapting a novel, would a filmmaker try to emulate the words-on-paper orturning-pages presentation of the book?

No, the best comic adaptations are the ones that adapt the stories andconcepts without trying to adapt the medium itself. Let the film be the film.

Ang Lee's "The Hulk" is a highly ambitious attempt to do a moviethat is part adult psychodrama, part popcorn, roller coaster tentpole, part filmand part comic book. Yes, Lee trips on the idea of bringing the comic-booky-nessinto the film, but for the most part the movie succeeds many levels.

THE COMIC BOOKY-NESS

This is my major complaint about the movie so lets get it out of the way,before moving on to the good stuff.

I got a sinking feeling when the titles for "The Hulk" started toroll. After rolling the now-familiar Marvel card (although it's been turnedgreen and Hulk-i-fied for this picture) we get into the main credits. Althoughthey play on a suitable creepy montage of mad-scientist experiments beingconducted by David Banner the credits themselves are rendered in standard,hand-lettered comic book font.

To me, this is a good example of an aesthetic misfire prompted by anattempt to capture the comic-booky-ness of "The Hulk." Why not use afont that mates with the dark science lab setting? Perhaps one that mirrorsDavid Banner's journal scrawl or a computer readout. Why choose a comic bookfont that would be glaringly incompatible with this sequence in any other movie?

The misfire is repeated in the closing credits as well, which are not onlyrendered in the same font, but also bounded by panels and word balloons.

For me the most jarring application of comic booky-ness is the multi-panelsplit screens and whiz-bang transitions employed by Lee throughout the movie.Yes, in "The Hulk" the story is sometimes displayed in two or morepanels on the screen: just like a comic book!

The idea is to intensify the affects of certain scenes by giving you the finedetails along with the big picture. For example, you can get two or three closeup reactions along with the large action of the scene, all one the screen at thesame time.

On my first viewing of the movie, I found the effect very distracting. Therewere times I found myself thinking less about the story and more about thestylistic choices.

Indeed some of the transitions (especially one focusing on Glen Talbotmid-way through the movie) are so over-done that they complete defuse thecarefully built tension of the scene.

While the effect of the panels and transitions was lessened for me on thesecond viewing of the movie, I still think they detract from the movie more thanthey add to it. In some cases it was downright frustrating to have the mostinteresting image crowded out by others.

The attempt to bring comic booky-ness to "The Hulk" often timesprevented me from getting immersed in the film, which is too bad because it's afilm worth getting immersed in.

SERIOUS MINDED

Jarring stylistic problems aside, Lee's approach to "The Hulk" maybe one of the most serious-minded comic adaptations in quite some time. Thejourney of repressed scientist Bruce Banner is a dark and lonely road.

Bruce was born on a military base in the western desert. His father, DavidBanner, is a military scientist obsessed with the study of genetic alterations.In classic mad scientist form, David experiments on himself when the militaryoversight gets too restrictive. As a result both he and baby Bruce are foreveraltered.

Outraged by Banner's lack of ethics, General Ross shuts him down and therebythwarts any opportunities the man has to cure his child. What follows is a darktraumatic event that will plague young Bruce into present day.

This is how you adapt a comic book: isolate a great story beat from theseries and focus the movie's story on it.

In the present Bruce (Eric Bana) goes by his adopted name Krenzler. Like hisbirth father he's a brilliant scientist pursuing genetic studies. He's aided bythe beautiful Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly) in the development ofgamma-irradiated nanomeds, designed to heal humans from catastrophic ailments.

Circling the project is General Ross (Betty's father played by Sam Elliott),Glen Talbot (a slimy military-scientist-turned-corporate-weasel played by JoshLucas) and the university's mysterious new janitor (Nick Nolte).

As expected, when one of Banner's experiments goes terribly awry, all Hulkbreaks loose.

GREAT CAST

"The Hulk" is blessed with a cast of immense acting talent.

Eric Bana gives a terrific, understated performance as the uber-repressedscientist. For most of his screen time, Bruce Banner comes off like a guy who isgenuinely uncomfortable in his own skin.

He's almost completely incapable of dealing with confrontations. When his labassistant points out that Banner seems geeky, even to other scientist, the bestBanner can muster is a lame retort. Later, he's no match for the in-your-facemachismo of General Ross, the intellectual manipulations of Banner Sr. and thevenal aggression of Talbot.

But the enemy that Banner struggles with most is the enemy within and thatdark secret that lurks behind the closed doors of his childhood.

Bana conveys his character's pervasive unease with stares and body languagethat speaks volumes.

Nick Nolte is mad scientist to the hilt. Pretty much looking like hisdrug-bust mug shot and dressing in the latest homeless fashion, Nolte gives themost riveting, if over-the-top performance of the film. He ranges from quietmenace when confronting Betty, to disturbing appeal when trying to win backBruce, to frail, fractured victim when confronted by Hulk, to raging madman whenhe fully steps into the villain role.

Whichever way he plays it, Nolte's scenes are always interesting. You can'ttake your eyes off of him.

Jennifer Connelly is, once again, cast as the girl worth staying sane for.While Banner is beset on all sides by characters wanting to a piece of him fortheir own ends, Betty is the only one looking for his soul. Indeed one of themost heartfelt scenes in the movie is when Bruce tells Betty, "You foundme."

CGI LEADING MAN

One concern on everyone's mind is the CGI. The Hulk may be the most ambitiousCGI character of all time, having to carry a large portion of screen time, rangefrom comic book action to human emotion and fit in with real world cast andsettings. Indeed, it's the main point fans have been fretting over since SuperBowl.

There are moviegoers who will know going in that they dislike the CGI Hulk,and watching the movie probably won't change their minds. In certain scenes Hulkdoes look like a CGI cartoon character: Shrek on steroids.

The effect is worst when the character is in enclosed, real-world settings,like his lab early on. But while these scenes may have looked "too CG"they never failed to look cool. Watching Banner Hulk out and smash up the lab isjust good fun.

When the CG Hulk busts out of the interiors and rampages through outdoorsettings the character really shines.

The brutal fight with the hulked-out dogs in the redwood forest is aspectacular nail-biter.

Hulk's battle in the desert with tanks and helicopters is, quite simply, oneof the most staggering examples of comic-book action ever rendered to film.

There's a shot where Hulk has realized there are tanks nearby firing on himand we see, through the perspective of the soldiers, this massive, green monsterrunning at us through a hail of artillery and sand...it's pure, stomach-droppingadrenaline.

This is how you adapt a comic book: isolate what's cool about the sourcematerial and blow it up in a way that only film can.

From that moment on "The Hulk" offers up one visual spectacle afteranother, building up with the climax where Banner and Hulk have to confronttheir true foe.

GRIPES

The movie is not without it's flaws. As mentioned, I found the stylistic votefor comic booky-ness to be a detraction.

I also have to admit that the movie seems slow getting started. Like thelengthy preamble to this very review, it takes a long time for Lee and companyto get all the pieces (both physical and metaphysical) in place. The first legof the movie is likely to elicit some yawns.

There are also certain plot devices that break down if you think about themtoo much. The nature of the Hulk dogs is sketchy, as is the nature of DavidBanner's mutation. Why is Betty so adept at locating a fugitive when herfather's vast military resources cannot? How does David Banner manage to keepsuch a low profile when he always seems to be traveling with three large,intimidating dogs?

THE VERDICT

In spite of the flaws, Hulk succeeds in what it sets out to be: a mix ofhigh-octane summer action and moody drama. No Hulk fan, particularly one wholoved the Hulk vs. military leg of the character's long-running exploits, will bedisappointed by the movie.

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