Another of Marvel Comics' misfits, The Hulk, has made it to the big screen. The X-Men are shunned because of their genes; Daredevil is left in the dark, literally; and the Hulk is big, green and ugly, and breaks things - more than enough reason for men with guns to want to kill him. He is more loveable than DC's invulnerable Superman or the high and mighty Batman.
That's what one remembers from the early Hulk comics. Meek genetic scientist Bruce Banner (played by Eric Bana, who makes Banner seem as harmless as a computer mouse, except, of course, when he gets real angry) turns into the massive, green-skinned monster, invariably due to the machinations of evil-doers. Hulk gets mad, Hulk breaks things and the puny humans want to kill Hulk.
And that's basically what Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; The Ice Storm) has put in his movie. He has spiced up Hulk's origin - being accidentally doused in gamma radiation was simply not enough. Banner comes packaged with all kinds of scary things in his bloodstream, passed down by his mad scientist father, played with gusto by Nick Nolte. The film flashes back extensively to Banner's childhood and a pivotal incident that changed the boy's life - with many visual clues along the way, such as a green toy monster attacking a harmless teddy bear, or green and purple colours swirling in Banner's father's scientific experiments.
Hulk's story is that of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with a dash of Frankenstein's monster. He can't help what he becomes and needs to be accepted, but life is never that simple. The villagers (or soldiers) are always at the ready with their pitchforks. Lee drives this point home solidly: even when the military is not after the Hulk, there is always Banner's father, who wants his son (or rather his son's alter ego) for his selfish and nefarious purposes. Here the Hulk's tale is more a tragic (and talky) drama than a superhero slugfest.
Banner's love interest and colleague, Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly), also has a troublesome dad, General Thaddeus Ross (Sam Elliott) - an archetypal military overlord, all clipped moustache, bluster and barked orders. Banner and Ross's fathers share a sordid and dramatic past, which led to Ross putting Banner's father behind bars for 30 years. It is not clear, after being released from prison, how he effortlessly obtains advanced scientific equipment and slips into high-security facilities, but hey, it's just a comic book, after all. And Lee never lets us forget that, either. Often the screen dissolves into a series of frames, each capturing an aspect of the bigger picture the way a comic-book artist would; even the credits come in speech bubbles.
The computer-animated Hulk is not just Shrek with muscles, despite his plastic-looking hair. The jury is still out on the Internet as to the quality of his computer genesis, but he certainly is impressive, lifelike and magnificent when battling mutant dogs (watch out for the monster French poodle, the scariest thing in the movie), ripping apart tanks or bounding across the landscape. He also does a fairly good King Kong impression, tenderly picking up Ross as if she were his Fay Wray. His transformation is comic-book perfect, clothes bursting apart and shoes popping open (although his pants mysteriously accommodate his growing girth).
Unfortunately Connelly plays her part with a single expression: doe-eyed, vaguely concerned, with a tear down one cheek. One could easily mistake her for the computer-generated character (ironically, her facial expressions were apparently used to provide emotions for the Hulk's mug).
One would have expected more action and less talk, but it is not a disappointing film - and it has a perfect-for-sequel ending. Maybe Lee has saved The Hulk's true rage for later.(c) The Mail & Gaurdian
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