No one's going to be too surprised to hear that Ang Lee's Hulk is a Jekyll-and-Hyde movie. After all, it's an adaptation of the comic-book equivalent of that classic story, with troubled egghead Dr Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) transforming into a bulging, emerald-skinned colossus every time he gets his Calvins in a twist.
But the description goes deeper than that. As you'd expect froma studio tentpole movie, Hulk is big on action-packed set-pieces, with the gargantuan green boy swinging tanks around his head, leaping through the air in three-mile bounds and smashing his way through labs and military installations, swatting the occasional soldier halfway into orbit. However, those are just the `Mr Hyde' moments.
The rest of the time, the movie's very much in Dr Jekyll mode - - meaning it's an astute adult drama about fractured personal relationships, emotional repression and dysfunctional parent/ offspring exchanges. In other words, during these scenes it's exactly the kind of film you'd expect from the director of affecting dramas like Eat Drink Man Woman and The Ice Storm. And, to be honest, it's rather difficult to get your head round the fact that such scenes share running time with all that big-buck CG action.
But that's not to say Hulk doesn't work. Younger audience members may quickly grow bored watching all the grown-ups talking about grown-up stuff, and older viewers may find the action scenes too loud and audacious, but there's a lot of us in between who'll agree that Hulk is the most intriguing, intelligent summer blockbuster we've seen yet. And, quite frankly, the oddest, too.
Perhaps it's Lee's languorous, intentionally symbolic shots which explore the texture of wood, rock and lichen. Or perhaps it's the effective split-screen techniques, which regularly chop the screen up into comic-book-style frames, offering multiple angles or images, then wiping across to the next scene. Either way, the bold, visual inventiveness on display means you can't help thinking that Lee's taken the next logical step from his (admittedly superior) achievement on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Yes, he's made a full-on arthouse blockbuster.
Lee also delivers on his promise that Hulk will have far more emotional depth than we've come to expect of most summer smashers. He's always been an actor's director and he ensures that his cast is never less than absorbing. Eric Bana excels as Hulk's alter ego, pulling off the difficult trick of portraying a man whose struggle is largely internal, forever battling with his simmering rage, and always scratching around in his subconscious for the repressed memories which hold the key to his mysterious past. Jennifer Connelly, meanwhile, is outstanding as Dr Betty Ross, a woman resigned to being pushed away by the men she should be closest to - namely her Hulk-hunting father General Ross (Sam Elliott, on typically gruff military form) and ex-lover Bruce. Then there's Nick Nolte, who pushes things as far out there as he can get away with as Bruce's deranged pop, David Banner (just one of several nods to the '70s TV series).
But what about the movie's star? You know, the one made entirely of zeroes-and-ones, created during a gruelling two-year period at FX powerhouse Industrial Light&Magic? Back when the Super Bowl trailer was first aired, the reaction was understandably mixed. After all, what we saw of Mr Hulk looked very obviously CG and jarringly comic-booky. Well, there's never any point in Hulk where you're going to be totally convinced that the monstrous shirt-ripper is really there. But then how can you expect a 15ft green bloke to look realistic? Besides, if we could accept people fighting on treetops in Crouching Tiger, why can't we accept Hulk sprinting through the desert at 100 mph?
Quite simply, once he's in context and disbelief is suspended, you'll have no problem accepting the CG Hulk. He may not be quite as impressive as The Two Towers' Gollum, but come the end credits, you'll wish there'd been a few more sequences of him laying the smackdown on mutant French poodles (no, really), or trashing military hardware with surprising agility. This isn't a Frankenstein-ish lumbering beast - rather a dextrous, fist-swinging force of nature, a massive bundle of raw, unchecked emotion.
However, anyone expecting an exuberant superhero movie will be disappointed. Much of Hulk plays like a Greek tragedy and with not a tight leather costume in sight, it's a largely humourless affair. That it doesn't deliver what most people would expect of a Friday-night popcorner could prove its biggest flaw. But for anyone who likes to give their brain something meaty to chew on, it's also Hulk's greatest strength.
Part FX-showcasing action-packer, part subtle, dramatic mystery, Hulk is a strange and surprising big-screen creature. A blockbuster, then, with an arthouse twist.
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