Director: Ang Lee
Writers: James Schamus, Michael France, John Turman (Based on the character created by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby)
Distributed By: Universal Pictures
Starring: Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Sam Elliott, Nick Nolte, Josh Lucas, Paul Kersey, Cara Buono, Celia Weston
Release Date: June 20, 2003
Welcome back for the fourth and final entry in Movie Mondays’ look back at THE INCREDIBLE HULK! This installment is all about the incredible disappointment that is Ang Lee’s HULK. With a production that began in the mid-90s that didn’t come to fruition until 2003, with well over half a dozen writers trying to Frankenstein a movie together, the monster they finally created is a misguided and poorly executed attempt to bring The Hulk to the big screen. Just how bad can it be, you may wonder. Well let’s get down to the nitty-gritty and find out.
In this film, Dr. Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) is working with Dr. Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly) on experimental nanomachines and gamma radiation when a lab accident occurs, over-exposing Banner to lethal doses of gamma. Surprisingly, Banner survives, and as the old saying goes: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Apparently, years ago Banner’s father David (Paul Kersey) was conducting genetic experiments on himself, and those experiments carried over into the genes of his son, drastically altering Bruce’s DNA. This genetic alteration is what allowed the good doctor to survive his gamma bath, but at a cost. Now, whenever Bruce becomes overly upset or angry, he transforms into a giant green rage monster known as Hulk. Enter our three (count ‘em, three!) villains. General Ross (Sam Elliott), Betty’s father and military man who deems Hulk a threat to all life, and wants him destroyed. Major Talbot (Josh Lucas), an obnoxious man who wants Betty for himself and wants to use Hulk’s genes to make military weapons. And finally, David Banner (now Nick Nolte) comes back to find a way to take Hulk’s power for himself.
Let’s start with one of the positive aspects of this film, since they’re fewer and farther between than all of the negatives. The acting from Bana, Nolte, Connelly, and Kersey is generally pretty remarkable, with the standout performance coming from Nolte’s portrayal of a truly unstable man. Eric Bana pulls out a truly fantastic performance full of heart and depth, but unfortunately the character itself is given traits in the film that clash with his portrayal in the source material (the same assessment can be made of the character of Bruce’s father). Jennifer Connelly does exceptionally well as Betty, providing a loving, headstrong, understanding character full of tenderness, presenting a great antithesis to the more emotionally destructive male leads. Sam Elliott provides a middling performance, not really bad but only seldom engaging, more or less playing “Sam Elliott in a General’s uniform.”
The only performance that seems truly lackluster is that of Josh Lucas as Talbot. His acting is generally over the top from start to finish, which is annoying on its own, but combined with the fact that everyone else in the film gives rather real performances, his overblown villain just comes across as a ham. Though Lucas’s cartoonish portrayal is the least of this film’s problems.
The pacing of this film is abysmal, moving at a snail’s pace from open to close. Now, this critic loves a good, slow, character-driven, atmospheric film, but this film is simply too slow for its own good. There are a few really nice slow moments of character building with Bruce and Hulk, but for the majority of the film the slow pace does nothing but drag the overall presentation down.
In regard to the aforementioned “nice slow moments,” there is one great moment of Bruce being tormented in his subconscious by Hulk, as well as a nice scene with Hulk calming down in the desert after a harrowing escape from a military lab. The best scene in the film comes by way of a nice slow moment, wherein Bruce tells Betty how he feels about the Hulk, describing the transformation, and how it feels, and sharing his feelings about himself. It’s a great scene, wonderfully acted by both Bana and Connelly. However, this scene is ruined by offering a portrayal of Bruce that flies in the face of the source material as he explains that he actually likes the way it feels when he loses control to the Hulk.
While on the subject of great scenes, it would be remiss of me not to mention two of the best scenes of the film. The film’s centerpiece, Hulk escaping from the military compound, is without equal. Now, the scenes inside the compound are outstandingly cheesy and unremarkable, filled to the brim with an obnoxious editing style that will be addressed later. But the section of the film that begins with Hulk emerging from the compound into the desert, and ending with his eventual reunion with Betty, is as good as this film gets. And it’s not just because of the action, which is also top-notch. This scene really showcases the great balance between emotional beats, humor, and chaos that a Hulk story should be. Also, the CGI creation that is The Hulk really gets a few great moments to shine. The creature is full of anger, confusion, curiosity, and longing, all at once, and it really comes to life in these moments.
The other great scene is this very minimalistic sequence near the end, just before the final climactic battle, where Bruce and David Banner are reunited as they’ve both been captured by the military. Bruce’s completely unhinged father tries to have a talk with his son, all the while showing how crazy he really is. Both Bana and Nolte go completely overboard in a scene that truly calls for it, as emotions run high and frustration builds until there’s no alternative left for Bruce but to finally confront the monster his father has literally become.
Aside from the pacing problem, the editing of this film is a major source of frustration. The film edits scenes together in this weird style where frames and images pull out into separate panels in a bizarre attempt to emulate the panels of a comic book, but it all comes across as superfluous and exceedingly cheesy.
A lot of the problems in this movie stem from the fact that the creative minds behind the project just don’t seem to understand, or want to understand, the character. Hulk is a “giant” (at around 8-12 feet tall depending on artistic interpretation) who grows stronger the angrier he gets, but in this film, he grows larger, at one point noticeably well over 20 feet tall, with Betty barely reaching his thigh. Banner is afraid of how much he enjoys becoming The Hulk. Banner’s father’s motivations for his insanity are completely altered.
Eric Bana gives a great performance, and generally carries most of the movie himself. Despite the numerous deviations from the source material, the majority of the actors do well with what they have to work with, which is unfortunate considering how hard the rest of the movie is working against them.
As a stand-alone movie this film earns a score of 5 out of 10. As an adaptation of the source material, Ang Lee’s Hulk is worth a score of 4 out of 10.