It’s not easy being green. Making green, however, was easy enough for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon director Ang Lee’s interpretation of Hulk on its opening weekend — the Marvel Comics adaptation grossed $63 million to land with a gamma-powered leap atop the box office charts. But will it cause the makers of other recent and upcoming comic book movies to turn green with envy?
Eric Bana (Black Hawk Down) is Dr. Bruce Krenzler (huh?), a scientist studying the healing powers of nanite technology. Greedy military contractor Glenn Talbot (Josh Lucas) wants Krenzler’s research to create soldiers who can heal themselves on the battlefield. Krenzler’s research partner Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly) still cares deeply about her friend but ended their romantic relationship because of Bruce’s emotional distance.
When a lab experiment goes wrong, Bruce bravely saves a friend (who inexplicably isn’t Rick Jones from the comic books) by taking the brunt of a deadly blast of gamma radiation. But it’s not just the nanites he’s been exposed to that save him from the gamma burst. There’s something else inside him, a dark family secret that started with his mad scientist father, David Banner (Nick Nolte). Bruce doesn’t remember the Banners who bore him. But those repressed memories and the reappearance of his father will trigger his transformation into a massive creature of undeniable power: the Hulk.
The United States military, under the command of Betty’s father, General “Thunderbolt” Ross (Sam Elliott), hunts the Hulk while Bruce faces the dark secrets of his past. At 137 minutes, it’s just too much. The implication that his father’s experiments are a big part of Bruce’s transformation into the Hulk is too deliberate; it’s like saying that Norman Osborn put the radioactive spider on Peter Parker’s hand so that he’d have had somebody to fight. The scenes of Bruce’s terrifying childhood are disturbing and bizarre, while the scenes of the Hulk fighting planes, tanks and helicopters are harmless (though still quite impressive) computer generated action. Helicopters thrown against the sides of mountains barely break apart before coming to rest in pieces that don’t explode, allowing their pilots to crawl to safety. It’s like watching an old G.I. Joe cartoon. The film goes back and forth between being taking itself too seriously and being too silly, with no middle ground.
A big part of whether or not you’ll enjoy this film is what you think of the Hulk himself. The computer-generated creature looks and moves like a big green rubber body filled with water. Lou Ferrigno brought something real and human to the television Hulk. This CG creation throws a decent tantrum but looks exactly like the piece of animation he is. In all fairness it’s true that a human actor would not have worked in this film’s action sequences, but that doesn’t make this CG Hulk any more believable.
The film drowns itself in the emotional pain of its characters, but Banner’s physical transitions from human to Hulk are too fast and too smooth. One second he’s Banner, and the next he’s swollen up to Hulk size. The best part of the action is the exciting depiction of the full capabilities of the F-22 jet fighter and the Comanche stealth helicopter, which are not yet in service but used against the Hulk here in stunningly realistic CG glory.
As frustrating as the script can be, Ang Lee succeeded in making a living comic book. The screen is often split into comic book panels that show different actions at the same time or the same action from multiple angles. This trick is much like the CG Hulk. If you like it, you’ll be fine. It not, you’ll be annoyed through the entire movie.
Connelly and Elliott give the best performances. Betty Ross is a compassionate woman who’s treated like a teenage girl by the men around her. Her father talks down to her, Glenn Talbot leers at her like a pervert and Bruce doesn’t know how to talk to her at all. Connelly brings much intelligence to the part, with her most powerful moment coming in the hospital room with Bruce after his gamma accident. A tear rolls down her face not so much because of Betty’s concern for Bruce but because her scientific mind knows how impossible it is that he’s seemingly fine after an accident that should have killed him. Like Connelly, Elliott rises above the script to create nuances that make his relationship with Connelly’s character believable. Josh Lucas also steps up to give his one-dimensional character plenty of slither.
It should be noted that Nick Nolte’s character is NOT the same David Banner from the TV series starring Lou Ferrigno and the late Bill Bixby. Bixby’s character (who was really Bruce Banner, just with a different name) was a beautiful human being, while Nolte’s is the true monster of this film. If naming Nolte’s character “David” was done as a nod to Bixby, it’s a shameful, Hulk-sized insult.
Eric Bana is a good actor, but Bruce Banner is the least important character in his own movie. Betty says to him in one scene, “You sound almost passionate.” And that sums up the entire character. Everything is “almost,” and he’s basically just the guy who turns into the Hulk and little more. It’s not Bana’s fault. Like the rest of the cast, he’s good with what little he’s given. What he’s given, unfortunately, isn’t so good.
Near the end of the film, a character tells Banner that he’s “a husk of flimsy consciousness.” By that point most of the audience was, too. Though Hulk is an adequate summer movie, it lacks the fun of Spider-Man, the intelligence of X-Men and the heart of either.