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Published: Friday, 6/20/2003

Movie review: The Hulk ****

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Puny moviegoers with little kids in tow and memories of childhoods spent sorting issues of Ghost Rider from Iron Man. The Hulk smash what you expect from a superhero movie. The Hulk no care. The Hulk ambitious, maybe to a fault.

The Hulk wants you to remember what you thought about old comic books as much as how you felt. Ang Lee's The Hulk is a fascinating and bold attempt to synthesize something cheap and something real: It's old-fashioned 1950s sci-fi mad scientist gibberish told through the lens of a master; it's the serious side of comic book pop, the dark side of pixilated dots and thick black-bordered panels bursting with speed - a cold but sometimes exhilarating cognitive and visual thrill, and one that takes a brave leap, sacrificing the visceral zing of Spider-Man and the camp of Batman for more lyrical ends.

In other words: The Hulk pretty but moody. Then again, the Hulk was never a typical superhero. He's not a superhero at all. The old Marvel characters that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created were pent-up, barely capped volcanoes of angst who channeled their powers into revenge, paying the rent, and then doing good. These characters weren't breezy. They were more real than the guys over at DC. The Hulk was anger incarnate. When Bruce Banner gets mad, an avalanche of id takes over. He becomes the Hulk, and a threat. To that, Lee adds layers: a father (Nick Nolte) who passes down mutant genes, an Oedipal nightmare of repressed memories Bruce can't quite recall - it's a story of how the sins of the father are forever.

Adam raised a Cain.

I realize, more pressingly, the question of the summer is: How's The Hulk? Or rather: Is the Hulk in The Hulk, you know, fake looking? To which, I pose to anyone who asks: Do you accept that Wile E. Coyote can fall off a cliff and survive but think Wile E. Coyote's head taking the shape of a fry pan is ridiculous? Still, it is a fair question - if one that Lee perhaps didn't think would be ultimately as important as whether the film felt emotionally true.

It is. The Hulk is from a director who's tried martial art films (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), family drama (The Ice Storm), and westerns (Ride With the Devil). He approaches comic books with the same serious intent and made a movie built to last - but destined to alienate thrill-seekers and be judged on its faults, and underrated; it's thinking something other than what you're thinking, if what you're thinking has anything to do with popcorn.

But to answer: The Hulk looks great and not great enough, believable in daylight strangely, and digital at night. Sometimes he's rubbery, Gumby on steroids, sometimes he's a tragic figure, and a lot of the time, he resembles sweaty mint chocolate - sorry, The Incredible Sweaty Mint Chocolate Man. And yet he still looks sprung directly from the pages of the comic created by Lee and Kirby. Those first issues gave Bruce Banner a real wanderlust and nerdy cast; those stories were loaded with science and the pain of not being in control of your own life.

They were also odd. This screen version of the Hulk looks so much like his print incarnation, the rest of the world doesn't meld with him. He's so much in the foreground, the background recedes. Think Roger Rabbit. It's a curious problem: This is arguably the first comic book movie not set in a comic book world, and so the Hulk, who's not expressive enough to begin with, is more than an outcast. He never seems to be in the room with the rest of the cast.

But he's true. He feels right. I got into the story, which is basically Banner and Betty facing their mingled past. Midway through, our hero, the not-so-jolly green giant, hightails it across Northern California and goes to the edge of a clearing, not far from a cabin. Scientist Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly) hears something and walks outside and stares into a curvy snarl of redwood, shadows playing along the trunks, creating an abstraction of limbs. She stares into the tangle until, as if seeing a Magic Eye painting, a green face stares back.

It's a powerful image - but one of the best things about the film is how Lee blends in terrific bursts of action. Hulk's anger is truly startling. He swats away rockets; races across a desert landscape; takes on a tank brigade, and trashes a science center, his arms buckling walls as they scrape along a hallway. There's a scene where Hulk piggybacks on a fighter jet to the edge of space that's simply beautiful, and a battle with mutant dogs that is doled out in flashes of snarling teeth, the only light the blue glow of the moon peeking through leaves.

Abstraction is the buzz word here. Lee focuses on rocks, on algae, on cells, to give us a sense of nature. He throws in 2001-like light shows. Then he tweaks the entire look of the movie itself to resemble a moving comic book. This is the biggest gamble, but it works: The screen is often split into multiple panels that converge and change shape, freeze, zoom in and out. Yes, it's a gimmick, and distracting at first, but one that makes a compelling argument for the ways that comic books are art, how images and montages of images can work.

Sounds thoughtful, huh?

There are problems. The Hulk could use some humor. There's a lack of spontaneity. Tones clash. Eric Bana as Bruce Banner is a walking coma, while Josh Lucas as a rival researcher is too much the other way: a cartoon villain, all wild eyes.

The acting is left to Connelly, who's all stormy eyes and tears, and a disheveled Nolte, so over-the-top he resembles his own infamous police mug shot. Neither is very good, but they're not boring, either. And besides, they fit well into an implacable sensation going on here: that the movie is like the Hulk himself - unstable, risky, opaque, but capable of great power.

A summer movie that aspires to greatness but falls short, and refuses to be disposable? You're still going to complain?

Don't make me mad.



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