Universal // 2003 // 138 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // September 24th, 2008
He's a mean, green fighting machine!
"You know what scares me the most? When it happens...when I totally lose control...I like it."
Bruce Banner (Eric Bana, Munich) is a well-respected scientist doing some groundbreaking work. He is attempting to explore the possibilities of the immune system and thinks he may be on the verge of a breakthrough. What Bruce doesn't know is that the secrets he is seeking may very well be hidden within him. As a child, Bruce was subjected to some controversial experimentation conducted by his father (Nick Nolte, 48 Hours). When Bruce is exposed to some potentially deadly gamma rays, it triggers a strange reaction. Bruce is not hurt, but instead finds himself in better health than ever.
The strangest part is yet to come. When Bruce gets angry, he...well, he changes. He turns into an angry, raging, violent green monster...some sort of Incredible Hulk. A creature like that can't hide for very long, and soon a military general (Sam Elliot, The Big Lebowski) determines to lock Banner up until he can figure out what is going on. That's going to be a little bit more difficult than the general thinks. Not only is this Hulk a seemingly unstoppable force, but the general's own daughter (Jennifer Connelly, Dark City) has deep feelings for Banner. As if that weren't enough, Bruce's dear old daddy has re-entered the picture, and he seems to have his own plans for his big green boy.
Ang Lee's Hulk has taken a lot of flack over the past few years. When it first appeared in theatres, it debuted to a solid $60 million, but quickly took a financial nosedive thanks to bad word-of-mouth. People complained that the CGI was bad, that the film was too talky and boring, that there wasn't enough action, and that the ending was a little bit incomprehensible. While some of these charges have merit (I'll go into that in just a bit), they sell the film very short. Hulk is a movie that has many positive qualities, and I think it's one of the more unique and underrated comic book films of recent years.
There are a lot of superhero films in which the hero whines and complains about how his/her cool power is such a burden and a curse. Banner's unique ability actually is a curse, but he's not so sure that he dislikes it. As much damage and destruction as his alter ego causes, he finds a certain satisfaction in being able to unleash his inner rage. This is most assuredly a comic book movie, but it is not a superhero movie. We root for Banner because we feel sorry for him, but his primary concern is most assuredly not saving people from wicked villains. His biggest enemy is not the military or his father, but rather his own anger. Hulk is a drama about a man at war with himself; an emotionally intimate story told on a rather huge and expensive scale. This is what you get when you ask the director of The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain to helm an action blockbuster. I know a lot of people didn't like this approach, but I find this movie infinitely more interesting than good chunk of the more "traditional" superhero films (including Louis Leterrier's reboot of the Hulk franchise).
I would contest the argument that Hulk is dull. It may not have much to offer in the humor department, but this stormy drama percolates along quite nicely. Lee's creative cinematography and editing play a big role in keeping things interesting. For quite some time, comic books have been influential in the way films and television programs are edited. Lee takes things to the next level, using comic book-like cuts and angles to create the feeling of a reading experience coming to life onscreen. At times, Lee also employs some interesting split-screen techniques. He doesn't overuse this gimmick, but when he does employ such methods, they seem appropriate and compelling. The really cool thing is that you could probably take a frame grab from each shot and create a very coherent story comprised solely of individual photos.
The three key characters here are represented with very solid performances. Eric Bana is excellent as Bruce Banner, playing the role in a down-to-earth and reserved manner. It's a quietly soulful performance, and Bana nicely captures Banner's complex emotions. Inner conflict is the name of the game here, and Bana isn't the only one asked to play it. Jennifer Connelly plays a woman helplessly trapped between her father's cautious common sense and her feelings for Bruce. The great Sam Elliot is nothing short of perfect as General Ross. Initially, Elliot gives off a frightening Gen. Jack D. Ripper vibe, but slowly reveals new layers of complexity as the film progresses. Just watch his scenes with his daughter, when his tender fatherly instincts clash with his military mindset. Wandering around the grubby edges of the film is Nick Nolte, who always seems like the most suspicious man in the room, no matter who he is in the room with.
The film gets a decent enough hi-def transfer. It's a little more ragged than I expected for a film made in the last few years, though. There's a small steady stream of small flecks and scratches. Nonetheless, blacks are deep and the level of detail here is impressive. Sound is a mixed bag. While the audio is clean, the action scenes are simply too loud in contrast to the quiet dialogue. I found it impossible to find a satisfactory volume level that wouldn't force me to employ the remote at some point. Danny Elfman's score (a last-minute replacement for a rejected effort from Mychael Danna) is a little less memorable than such iconic comic book scores as Spider-Man and Batman, but it's a solid Herrmannesque outing that serves the film quite well. It gets a nice boost here, and is effectively immersive.
The only new feature here is the U-Control picture-in-picture option. I'd be happier with this if it offered a steadier stream of engaging content. All of the other supplements are ported over from the previous 2-disc DVD. The best of these is the Ang Lee commentary, which is both thoughtful and informative. Lee typically does a good job with commentary tracks, and this one is no exception. There are also five featurettes, presented in standard-def: "The Incredible Ang Lee," "The Making of Hulk," "Evolution of the Hulk," "The Dog Fight Scene," and "The Unique Style of Editing Hulk." Finally, there are some deleted scenes. Pretty good stuff.
Okay, so some of those complaints are justified. The movie struggles the most during the action scenes, largely due to the fact that The Hulk always looks like a CGI creation. It's impossible to believe that we're watching anything other than special effects. However, we've had a few years to tweak the technology, and I didn't find the effects in the recent Hulk flick any more convincing. Maybe it's just hard to pull off a realistic big green guy with indestructible purple shorts. Oh, and those giant dogs are just embarrassingly silly-looking.
The character played by Josh Lucas is an annoying and one-dimensional distraction. With all the complexity afforded to most of the characters in this film, it's a shame that Lucas comes across as nothing more than a bland bully. Additionally, the climactic battle is still a problematic element. When I saw the film for the first time in the theatre, I could barely see a thing. It's a dark, murky, incomprehensible scene that leaves viewers wondering what on earth just happened. After several viewings and a lot of squinting I think I'm finally pretty sure of what happened, but there is no excuse for making such an important scene so visually indecipherable.
Whether you like Hulk or not, you have to admit that it's not more of the same. Ang Lee deserves credit for trying to break some new ground in the genre rather than relying to predictable formulas. Though there are some missteps along the way, Hulk is a thoughtful blockbuster that deserves a second look.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French, Canadian)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (German)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Italian)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Japanese)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish, Castilian)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish, L.A.)
* English (SDH)
* French (Canadian)
* Mandarin (Traditional)
* Spanish (Castilian)
* Spanish (L.A.)
Running Time: 138 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* U-Control Picture-in-Picture
* Deleted Scenes