Hulk Smashed 

Ang Lee's $100 Million Art Film

The Hulk

dir. Ang Lee

Opens Fri June 20

A Buttload of Theaters

After sifting the rather barren soil of my writing skills, the best I could come up with to fully describe Ang Lee's The Hulk is this: Holy living fuck. As in, you have no idea--absolutely no idea--just what you are in for when you see it.

That is, if you see it. Indeed, from the film's very first advertisement--during the Super Bowl, of course--a chorus of cyber nerds heckled: The Hulk looks supremely lame, like a pissed-off Shrek, a CGI joke. And, yes, in those early spots, the Hulk has looked somewhat shoddy and cheesy and comically cartoonish, a fact that certainly threatened whatever skill and depth Ang Lee promised to bring to the picture. Would the mighty green one, once finished, equal the brilliance of Gollum in The Two Towers, or would he inspire the seething hatred leveled at that Rastafarian toad in The Phantom Menace? The answer is subjective--to be sure, the keyboard jockeys at Industrial Light & Magic have sweated excessively over the Hulk, with fairly spectacular results; but whether or not you buy the beast onscreen is dependent upon just how far you, yourself, are willing to leap.

I, for one, took the leap. Draping myself in suspension of disbelief, I watched gleefully as the Hulk made his first appearance--at about the 35-minute mark--and completely destroyed a science lab like some nefarious, muscle-bound child jacked up on Ritalin. I laughed, not in mocking, but in appreciation, as he sprinted through the desert and then sailed some three miles away into the distance. And I nearly cheered as he destroyed a platoon of tanks like he was playing with a set of Hot Wheels; the Hulk's frolics inspire a rush of comic book glory. And even if a handful of close-ups don't necessarily pull themselves off (beware of the Hulk-coated-in-foam scene), the sum of the computer work does exactly what it is supposed to, which is bring the Hulk (a 15-foot green muscle with purple shorts) to the screen.

Every superhero must have an alter ego, however, and it is in the story of the Hulk that Ang Lee's talents make their true mark on the character. By now, most of us know the tale: A mild-mannered, emotionally stunted scientist named Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) is accidentally dosed with a blast of gamma radiation, which gives him the power--whether he wants it or not--to turn into the Hulk when anger overcomes him. Hulk smash!

This simple (and, yes, utterly absurd) tale was the backbone for Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's original comic creation, but it has been given an overhaul by Ang Lee and writers James Schamus, John Turman, and Michael France for The Hulk. In fact, this may be the most grown-up--and most emotionally fucked-up--comic book movie ever assembled. All the elements of the original story are still there, but in bringing it to the screen the group has given Bruce Banner a dose of childhood trauma to go along with his gamma radiation. Said trauma is found in the form of his father, David Banner (Nick Nolte), himself a scientist who, in trying to improve upon nature's design, passed on some minor kinks to his son. These kinks, when added with radiation and Bruce's repressed childhood memories, allow the Hulk to arrive, and make The Hulk perhaps the world's most expensive exploration of radical therapy ever encountered.

Still, just Freud and hurled cars would not a great comic book flick make, which is why Lee includes two of the comic's other elements: heart and villainy. The heart is found in Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly), Bruce's ex-girlfriend and lab partner; the villainy in Betty's estranged father (Sam Elliott), a general, and the man put in charge by the President to contain and eventually figure out what to do with the Hulk.

Late in the film, when the Hulk is on a rampage in San Francisco, he picks up a chunk of sidewalk and readies himself to hurl it at a helicopter, only to stop himself when he notices Betty inside. The look on the Hulk's face in that moment, the mixture of confusion and love and exhaustion, is what Ang Lee's The Hulk is really about, and despite whatever pitfalls this may encourage, it works. Though the film stumbles a bit toward the end, it is a true comic book movie--and a summer blockbuster like you've never seen.

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