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IN SHORT: A spectacular misfire. [Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, some disturbing images and brief partial nudity. 138 minutes]
We begin with the most important credit of all which, for once, properly appears in the film credits: Based on Marvel Comics characters created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Their Hulk was a Jekyll and Hyde creation set firmly in, and created by, events of the Cold War era. That war is long gone and that means that, whether on television or in the comic books, the origin of The Hulk has changed as many times as the color of his skin and/or his level of intelligence and/or personality has. If that reads a little fanboy-ish, it is. That's why its Number One Rule of Site that you shouldn't have to read the Source Material to understand what is going on. You don't, as this year's Hulk comes up with its own brand spankin' new origin, one which will only be vaguely familiar to completists.
Ang Lee's Hulk falls short on delivering the tragedy which is the center of its man-into-monster story. That doesn't mean that there aren't moments in Hulk that aren't light enough to gather their own wee share of laughter. There are. Unfortunately, all those moments come at the wrong places and most of the giggles are due to a spectacularly off the mark Nick Nolte as military research scientist Dr. David Banner (Nick Nolte). Banner's experiments in genetics -- some kind of super-auto-immunizer utilizing gamma rays to boost the body's defense mechanism against biowarfare weaponry -- though banned by the military brass, continue in secret with the only subject guaranteed to keep his mouth shut. Himself.
Ah, enough about the Banner family! Let's ignore the gamma explosion that wipes out the military base where Banner worked and focus our attention thirty years down the pike to the Berkeley Nuclear Biotechnology Institute. There, meek and mousy Dr. Bruce Krenzler (Eric Bana) with fellow researcher and former not-quite girlfriend Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly), investigates the effect of gamma rays on cell-sized nanobots designed to bring wondrous healing factors to human body design and/or promote the regeneration of limbs & things. Former military dude Glen Talbot (Josh Lucas), now hacks for the Atheon Corporation and hangs about the lab, trying to win over Ms. Ross and sucker the doctor into the high paying world of the private sector. Glen and Bruce don't like each other but Bruce keeps his feelings bottled up tighter than a hermetically sealed container.
Bruce and Betty do have one thing in common. They are both tormented by nightmares. He, of menacing knives. She, of exploding mushroom clouds of green flame. All will be revealed by the end of Hulk but no one in our audience cared. For this Hulk is long on plodding plot development and, by comparison, short on action.
The all-new origin of the Hulk has Dr. Krenzler protecting Dr. Ross and a research assistant from an accidental firing of the gamma radiation device being used in the experiments described above. Why the radiation doesn't kill him is part of the "new" origin we won't spill. Bruce has mutated into a massive, nine foot tall, green monstrosity that can jump three miles, run 100 mph and cause earthquakes by stomping on the Crust of Mother Earth. This "hulk" is a raging beast unleashed by anger and pain, the angrier he gets, the stronger and the larger he gets. "It" is, in short, a complete opposite to the personality of his host form. But Krenzler doesn't know that, yet. He begins having awful nightmares. Some kind of monstrous creature destroys his laboratory, late at night. The monster's debut at the lab is seen only by the janitor -- the not even close to dead David Banner... who will make all things clear to his son and will flip flop from concerned father to loving Frankenstein-like creator to utter madman. It's a range that Nolte possesses but he "chews up the scenery" with this performance.
What dooms the film is that the center of the story does not hold. It does not hold because, face it, when you pick and choose bits of forty years of origin stories as the basis for a new one, it would be a great idea to carefully make sure that all of those pieces fit together to properly explain why what is happening on screen is happening. James Schamus wrote this story. He was joined by two more writers to finish out the screenplay. Somewhere along the line "too many cooks" decided that "Puny Human!" was more important than "Hulk Smash!"
Without falling back into fanboy criticism, Hulk is a creature of rage. Bruce Banner's suppressed rage (yes, of course Krenzler is Banner. New origin, remember?). The film fails to make sense of what causes that rage. Things do happen to baby Bruce that are traumatic but we didn't buy that the psychological evolution of those events would lead to the kind of repressed anger that would unlock Hulk. Neither does this film's script. They've got yet another idea and we'll not spoil that surprise
The US military knew this day might be coming for a long time. General "Thunderbolt" Ross (Sam Elliot), father of Betty (who thinks she can "cure" Bruce) leads the team to capture what it perceives to be a one of a kind weapon. Failing all else, Ross' mission is to destroy the beast. Hulk doesn't like that idea. Hulk fights back. Which brings us to the wonders of CGI animation and whether or not it works. Simply, yeah, it does. Most of the time. The 100% computer generated Hulk doesn't look great. He shreds the streets of San Francisco with ease, mixing seamlessly with "real" locations and props. He shrugs off bullets and bomb blasts with ease but as a counterpart to his loser alter ego something major is missing from the mix. That would be, what is called in the business, a "reason for being" which brings us right back to where all that suppressed rage comes from.
There is some nonsense about killer dogs that add more confusion to the motivation of Nolte's character and regresses the "modern" Betty Ross to helpless female. The action in this sequence gets kind of gory, but it happens at night which takes a lot of the sting away. The CGI battle scenes work but come alive only when Hulk smashes things. "He" spends most of the time fighting defensively which doesn't help build excitement. This Hulk owes more to King Kong than to Lee and Kirby. A big screen ticket is necessary for appreciating the special effects.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Hulk, he would have paid . . .
See the effects on a big screen. Most of the kidlets in our audience walked out muttering about how "stupid" Hulk was. Our problems lie with the pacing and the visual disappointment of the gamma ray "accident" which triggers the eventual changes.
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