Mean Green

THE BALTIMORE SUN

With a budget upwards of $150 million, The Hulk may be the most expensive art film ever made. Then again, with its monster-on-the-rampage action, you could also call it a Godzilla flick for eggheads.

Either way, The Hulk is a fascinating, if flawed, extravaganza.

Based on the Marvel comic book, the film tells of Bruce Banner, a scientist who, after being zapped with gamma rays, turns into a green-skinned behemoth whenever he gets angry.

"We're gonna have to watch that temper of yours," says David Banner, Bruce's half-crazed dad, whose role in his son's uncontrollable transformations is anything but incidental.

The director is Ang Lee, whose brilliant Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was an unexpected blockbuster and yet, in its own way, an art film, too. It isn't so far from Lee's complex, family-centric oeuvre, including The Ice Storm, Sense and Sensibility and The Wedding Banquet.

Making Bruce's father a key character and stressing the relationship between Bruce's love interest, Betty Ross, and her father, General Ross, are very "Ang Lee" things to do.

This approach makes for a complicated, but not exactly sophisticated, narrative. The family relationships are so bizarre that it's hard to see how they relate to other families or even what their logic is.

Lee's approach also weakens the impact of the film's central theme: Like Bruce, we all have an angry monster inside us. It does not, however, weaken the visual impact of the action scenes, which are sensational.

Forget gloomy chat-room forecasts that the Hulk would look too cartoony. There's heft and life in this emerald avenger, whether he's battling monster dogs or fending off tanks and planes. If there are more exciting, better-choreographed action scenes in any film this summer, bring them on!

The illusion that the Hulk is a living, breathing creature is strengthened by his resemblance to Eric Bana, the broad-faced Australian actor who plays Bruce. Looking into the Hulk's brooding eyes, you can see the soul of the otherwise absent scientist.

As Bruce, Bana has a solid but vaguely facetious quality that brings to mind Christopher Reeve's terrific Clark Kent in the Superman movies. Jennifer Connelly is so shockingly beautiful as Betty, Bruce's scientific colleague, that you might almost miss the playful irony in her performance.

Both she and Bana have been given a simplified pop-art look, as if they'd been drawn in pen-and-ink: Both have prominent, amusingly straight, comic-book brows that suggest that Betty and Bruce fundamentally see things eye to eye.

Actually, Lee puts in several effective comic-book touches, including the comics-style credits. Sometimes he slices the screen into comic-book panels. At other times, his tricky, liquid scene-to-scene segues suggest the way the eye scans a comic-book page. (They also stress the theme of metamorphosis.)

The supporting roles are, you might say, Marvel-ously cast. Sam Elliott is appropriately crusty as Betty's militaristic, ramrod-slim father, while Josh Lucas is supremely snide as the weasely heavy. Nick Nolte, looking more and more like his famous mug shot, is suitably unhinged as David Banner.

Stan Lee, who co-created the Hulk in the early '60s, and TV's Hulk, Lou Ferrigno, share a cameo here as security guards. For Marvel fans, that's a big 'nuff said.

Clearly, there's an awful lot going on here. And for all its weaknesses, The Hulk is certainly something to see.

When the movie fails, at least it fails in an interesting way.

Jay Boyar writes for the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

The Hulk

Starring Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly

Directed by Ang Lee

Rated PG-13 (sci-fi action violence, some disturbing images and brief partial nudity

Released by Universal Pictures

Time 137 minutes

Sun Score * * 1/2

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