And You Thought It Was Safe(?)

Hulk (2003)

You know, straining too hard can cause a brain embolism.For various and sundry reasons, the Incredible Hulk casts a long shadow over my pantheon of superheroes…and what better time than now to examine each and every one in agonizing detail? It’s all because of that damned TV show. See, a long time ago, on a farm far, far away, my parents had a brief flirtation with mid-eighties middle-class status symbols. They got the VCR. They got the VHS. They got the satellite dish. One of those unwieldy, forty-foot fuckers that typified success for millions. Sure, go plant a ten foot tall metal tree in my back yard. Boy, that’ll really add value to the house.

By the time I came around, we got exactly two channels on the damn thing. Everything else was snow, bandwidth to bandwidth. Until the Sci-Fi Channel. One day, there it was: twenty-four hours of good ol’ fashioned science fiction programming. The Visitor, The Prisoner, The Twilight Zone, Planet of the Apes, Battlestar Galactica…and The Incredible Hulk, every day at four, staring Bill Bixby. I’d get off school and bam, there it was,  Lou Ferrigno large and in charge. I developed quite the ritual around it, as I did with all the good shows. And like all the good shows, eventually, Hulk disappeared without a trace.

Let's look at that industrial accident again, with split-screen!Yes, the Sci-fi channel sold out on us. To USA, of all bloody things. Up All Night, Le Feme Nikita, Burried Alive 2, US-fucking-A. No more Swamp Thing. No more The Flash. No more M.A.N.T.I.S. reruns. What do we get instead? Tremors: The Series. And goddmanit, I’m pissed. I’m always pissed when good entertainment gets tossed aside in favor of vapid, lowest-common-denominator crap. Hell, even Bad cinema is fine by me. Do you know how many Bad Movies the old Sci-Fi Channel used to broadcast? Does anyone else remember “Top Turtle Tuesdays”? Radiation Theater? Gigantor cartoons and Saturday mornings, followed by original Transformers? I can’t have dreamed all of this.

A few years later, I was pacing around the house at six o’clock on a Sunday morning and discovered The Marvel Action Hour on my local Fox affiliate. So every Sunday thereafter I dragged my ass out of bed and followed the adventures of Iron Man and The Fantastic Four. The shows themselves were fair to maudlin (neither matched the esoteric darkness of Batman’s Animated Series), but the best episodes always guest starred another hero from the Marvelverse, usually a heavy hitter like Silver Surfer, Ghost Rider, Thor…or the Hulk.

Then…what should happen…The Incredible Hulk: The Animated Series…with Lou Ferrigno once again large and in charge.

Okay...this is a little weird...Then some stuff happened, and I honestly forgot about the rumors I’d heard of a live-action Hulk, filming somewhere scenic in the California desert. Rumors of a completely CGI Hulk, hyped as the most believable special effect since…whatever the last one was…I’m not exactly sure.

We open with Dr. David Banner; physician, scientist. Trying to enhance the natural healing powers that all humans have. Then an accidental run-in with his military superiors sends him over the edge, causing him to commit horrible (off screen) things.

Thirty-five years later, we catch up with Dr. Banner’s son, Bruce (Eric Bana). Despite (or, it’s hinted, perhaps because of) his Super Scientist lineage, Bruce has done quite well for himself. He’s got the string of letters after his name, a cushy project at the Berkley Nuclear Biotechnical Institute (like that exists), and Dr. Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly). Or, he had Dr. Betty Ross. Bruce is a bit reserved, you see. A nice guy, yes…but there’s no real passion in him. Or, if there is, he hides it very well, for reasons that he keeps very secret. Especially from himself.

There’s a whole lot of psychological subtext flowing through all of this; some of it subtle, some of it not. Expect plenty of double-entendres alluding to Bruce’s duel nature, especially early on. It’s a bit annoying…and maybe a little fun. After all, you and I know this story, and on one level we’re just waiting around for the good stuff. But don’t discount this films forty-five minutes of set up. It’s well handled, and flows smoothly thanks in no small part to Ang Lee’s inspiring direction. While Sam Raimi seems to have mellowed considerably in his old age (directing Spider-Man with an almost mellow, pedestrian hand, rather unsuitable, considering), Mr. Lee is all over the ball park on this. Multiple split screens, kinetic pans, non-traditional transitions, and ungodly wide angles combine to make this the most visually interesting super hero movie I’ve ever seen.

(I felt an uncontrollable swarm of giggles come over me during the first fifteen minutes of the show. The imagery was just so kinetic, just so trippy. Almost revolutionary. Something to change the whole paradigm of superhero movie direction. Like discovering parenthetical asides for the first time.)

"You could've at least tried to be a boy, you know?"Which is perfect, because it forces you the audience to sit up and pay attention in the middle of the most brainless summer in history. If you’re waiting for Lee’s next directorial trick, you might stick around to catch all the chemistry between our two leads…which is odd, considering both actors play their characters with an uncomfortable reserve…kinda like a couple of exes who continued working together out of mutual respect for each other, and their project.

To twist the knife a bit more, Betty’s other ex, the smarmy Glen Talbot (Josh Lucus) starts sniffing around Berkley, looking to buy out their entire Project, something about nano-bots, designed to boost the human immune system and, if they can ever be made to work, repair grievous injuries without the need for long, medical treatment. When Bruce and Betty reject Glen in turn, Talbot gets on the horn and calls up Betty’s father, General “Thunderbolt” Ross (Sam Elliot)…who, it just so happens, gave Bruce’s father the shaft all those years ago, back at Gamma Base.

Luckily, Lee and his three screenwriters know we’re just twiddling our thumbs until Bruce gets on the wrong side of some gamma rays…which he does in short order. Bruce miraculously survives (of course), for reasons his big, squishy brain just can’t comprehend. A visit from a disheveled man claiming to be his long-lost father (Nick Nolte) does nothing to improve Bruce’s mood…and before you know it, things take a turn for the green. And get smashed.

Because now, whenever Bruce Banner becomes angry, or outraged, a startling metamorphosis occurs, turning Banner into a green-skinned, multi-ton, inarticulate engine of destruction. Good God, it’s a marvelous thing to see (no pun intended). In the Hulk’s first, five minute rampage through Bruce’s lab, all my fears were put to rest. Because I realized that–finally–someone had the money and the time to do things right. This isn’t Lou Ferrigno smashing through candy glass doors and balsa wood bricks…this is a creature, driven by rage, lashing out at anything and everything unlucky enough to cross his path. It’s a hell of a thing to watch, a cathartic experience, especially with my ample ass crammed into a squeaky theater seat…almost physically trying. I can only imagine the suffering of those poor ADD brats in the midday showings. They probably shook the theater with their fidgeting.

A"Thank God for Reed Richard's patented super-shorts."s one could imagine, the Hulk’s anti-social tendencies soon make Bruce the center of everyone’s attention. And what kind of monster movie would this be without a climactic battle with the United States Military?

There’s been a fair amount of bitching and moaning among the Usual Gang of Idiots. “Too campy,” they say. “Too slow.” “Too high minded for today’s short-attention span.” As if they haven’t spent the entire summer bitching about all the “mindless spectacles.” Here, Leonard, have some cake and eat it, too. I’m confused. When a “popcorn movie” tries to transcend it boundaries…to reach for something…to say something beyond, “Look, we got ILM to do this shot!”…isn’t that a good thing?

No one’s called The Hulk “pretentious”, yet, but you can feel it coming. Like a thunderstorm or a really good drug. People straddle the fence and call it “arty,” but it’s as if the mainstream is terrified to call a good thing when they see it. As if they’ve been so inundated with crap that they don’t know a good movie on sight. Though a refreshing slice of big names have embraced this film. Some (like me) go so far as to call it “the summer’s best.” (Which really says more about The Matrix Reloaded than Hulk. Damn Brothers and their damn half-movie goddamn teasing us until damn November. Damn.) What else do we have to work with? 2 Fast 2 Furious? Bruce Almighty? How about I release of movie of a film critic blowing his brains out, titled Summer: 2003?

God I get cynical in the summer. What were we talking about? Oh yeah….

Nope...nothing Christ-like here...Hulk is a rare treat for we fan boy malcontents. A superhero movie with a brain in its head. A monster movie that doesn’t club you with some half-assed “message”. A movie about fathers and the scars they inflict on their children…scars that sometimes fester and turn green…Pleasant surprise: the acting here is much better than I imagined. The days when Nick Cage could get a job playing Superman seem to be over. Rather than using the movie as a firing pin for his career, Eric Banna does his job with an unknown’s professionalism. His Banner comes across as a downright Nice Guy, a workaholic with some personal problems and the occasional fucked up dream. It’s no surprise when he transforms, but after forty-five minutes of his mild mannered scientist act it’s just jarring enough to work.

The rest of the cast follows Banna’s star, all the way to the top. Which is just fine. After all. That’s why they call ’em “supporting actors.” The only one who seems to chafe at this is Nick Noltie, who injects a liberal bit of ham into his role. Ham that’s not necessarily out of place…though it is a little odd after two hours of what is essentially an understated melodrama. Like a Western. And speaking of Westerns, there’s Sam Elliot as “Thunderbold” Ross. Any fan of the Western Channel will know that mustache on sight. I would’ve picked R. Lee Ermey myself, but he’s getting older, and Elliot doesn’t disappoint. He’s a hard target, nail chewin’, son of a gun, and he does Gen. Ross justice. But he’s also Betty’s father, and would you want you’re daughter bumping uglies with the Hulk? Lesser actors might’ve dropped the ball, but Elliot is an old pro, and he manages to show both sides of the Good General, turning him from an antagonist into a conflicted human being, trying to do right by his daughter and his nation.

Odds are the "fans" will end up hating these visual tricks, and we'll be right back to the same action movie crap that ruined X-men.Jennifer Connelly…is the Love Interest. You might remember this act from The Rocketeer, right? Right. Well, everything old is new again, but the twelve years between have definitely given her time to polish her act, so to speak. She’s certainly more of a plot mover than Mary Jane Watson, and a lot easier to look at then Margot Kidder. As far as I’m concerned, her turn here more than makes up for Requiem for a Dream, and she plays Betty as an amazed, empathetic, but above all, pro-active person, a tragic casualty of the Banner’s family drama. If I have a beef with anyone on screen, it’s Lucus. Glen Talbot is recast here as an ex-military, private-sector head hunter, and for that, if nothing else, you’d think Glen would get a bigger part in things. Especially after all the trouble the Talbots have given the Banners over the years. Instead, we have Glen Talbot by way of Boris Badenov–a one-dimensional little turd who exists for the express purpose of pissing Bruce off.

Not that this is a bad thing. God knows the TV-series created a legion of such characters. But, then, you gotta expect more from your movies. Otherwise they’ll just keep getting dumber and dumber as time goes buy and interest fades. Let’s all hope the Hulk franchise dodges that little bullet, shall we? [Note from the future – it didn’t.] Because it’s been a long time since I saw a theatrical release that I honest-to-God enjoyed. And since this is a happy time, let me close on a happy note, and leave you all to hunker down and await the DVD.


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