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Lee's 'Hulk'
an ambitious
Greek tragedy


June 26, 2003
By Franklin Harris

"The Hulk" is a film that is sure to polarize those who approach it with preconceptions. It's a summer action movie that is cerebral, and it's a superhero movie that treats its subject seriously. At the same time, it's a study of characters and relationships, yet it remains fully aware of its pulp origins.

As director Ang Lee says, "The Hulk" is a Greek tragedy. It just so happens that its main character turns into a huge, green monster when angry. Either the combination works, or it doesn't.

The Hulk
© Copyright Universal Pictures
In this case, it works. If "The Hulk" isn't the best superhero movie ever made — and I think it is — it is undeniably the most ambitious.

Lee, along with screenwriters James Schamus, John Turman and Michael France, has conceived a film that is both an original take on the Marvel comic book character and a faithful rendering of the themes that have grown around the Hulk during his 40-year history.

At heart, the Hulk is a child prone to especially nasty tantrums, which leave tanks in smoldering heaps and city blocks in ruins. In the comics, the Hulk's alter ego, Bruce Banner, is a survivor of child abuse. In the movie, Bruce's father is distant rather than abusive. In both versions, the Hulk's rage stems from repressed memories, and the result is the same: Bruce (Eric Bana) grows into an emotionally repressed adult. He cannot maintain a romantic relationship with his colleague Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly) and seems to have passion only for his work. He is a volcano of emotion waiting to erupt.

The trigger for Bruce's eruption comes when he is accidentally exposed to gamma radiation.

This is where Ang Lee's story differs most from the one Stan Lee and Jack Kirby tell in the comics. Rather than being the sole cause of the Hulk's creation, the gamma radiation reacts with a genetic mutation that Bruce already possesses, inherited from his father, David (Nick Nolte), who experimented on himself 30 years earlier.

As with so many Greek tragedies, "The Hulk" is about two timeless themes. First, there is the brilliant man whose hubris brings ruin upon his family. Then there is the son who must overcome his father. Stylistically, Lee complements his themes with dialog that seems more at home in a classical amphitheater than in an air-conditioned multiplex.

Lee also establishes a parallel relationship between Betty and her no-nonsense dad, Gen. "Thunderbolt" Ross (Sam Elliott). Both Bruce and Betty are effectively abandoned by their fathers on the same day, at the same instant, as a green mushroom cloud explodes in the sky above the desert military base where the film begins and ends.

The most interesting thing about "The Hulk," however, is how it looks. Lee uses split-screen editing and a variety of scene transitions to make the movie appear at times like the panels of a comic book. It's an experiment that pays off by making even the "slow" scenes interesting. And insofar as comic book artists often borrow visual cues from films, Lee's strategy brings things full circle.

Bana and Connelly are never less than credible in their roles, while Elliott and Nolte each give truly outstanding performances. Nolte in particular is excellent, with his combined menace and understatement. As for the computer-generated Hulk, he is as real and lifelike as the technology at present allows. Nothing can change the fact that he is a muscle-bound, emerald-green giant. He is never going to look as realistic as, say, Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings."

The movie's only real flaw is the decision to place the climatic fight between the Hulk and David Banner underwater and at night. After the splendid build-up, it would be nice to have a pay-off that is easier to see.

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