Now with Louis Leterrier's better-received take on Stan Lee's Jolly Green Giant doing the rounds, it is high-time to take a look at Ang Lee's bizarrely existential, yet supremely comic-book attempt to wrestle the gamma-irradiated ogre onto the big screen. His 2003 big budget adaptation was a brave endeavour that didn't exactly meet with mass approval, but with its arrival on US Blu-ray just before the newer one takes its hi-def bow, a reappraisal is only fair. My own opinion as to which was the better version was already made clear when I reviewed the 2008 reboot's theatrical run. I much prefer Lee's film. It is not without its faults and, indeed, looking at it with fresh eyes and with Edward Norton's incarnation still rumbling around in my mind, it actually feels slightly less intriguing than at first. But I have to admire to the road less travelled approach that the philosophical auteur was so intent on exploring. Famously stretching takes out to almost Kubrickian levels of perfection - one intense scene Bana claims went on for over 150 takes - Lee was adamant that he would give the pop culture icon a treatment that no-one was expecting.
And he certainly did that, all right.
The public wanted action and devastation ... which they got - but they didn't bank on the cerebral approach to Bruce Banner's dual personality and Ang Lee's artsy id-warping solution to a problem that they - and the fans - didn't actually think existed in the first place. Given reason and rationale to the good scientist's inner rage and body-enlarging condition had always been quite adroitly, yet simply handled. The beast in man ideology was, and still is, enough for most people. But Ang Lee, along with regular screen-scribe James Schamus, wanted to go deeper and both more intellectual and spiritual as well as primal - seeking the emotional and psychological angst that would be necessary to unlock such a subconscious monster in the first place. It was an audacious gambit and one that, sadly, didn't pay off. Even the racks of big padded Hulk-hands for the kids and the action-figure range did nothing to embellish his darker themed, less conventionally fun variation of the accepted “Hulk Smash!” shenanigans. But this disinterest was, perhaps, only to be expected. With so many comic-book champions and evil-doers finding rebirth and legitimacy in the modern world, the Hulk was possibly the one that was most associated with pure, unadulterated wreckage. A bitter father/son conflict and the sadistic heart of cutting-edge science may have been deemed too raw and acutely realistic to be wrapped around what many viewed as being little more than an escapist fable.
The story is actually very simple and linear, yet Lee and Schamus spring it about the narrative like a tennis ball, bouncing from the past to the present, prescient dreamscapes to surreal Hulk-interpreted realities until the scene is set for a gargantuan “sins of the fathers” confrontation that, frankly, defies face-value explanation. Dr. Banner Snr, played by a wonderfully grizzled Nick Nolte, returns from years of military-stockade enforced isolation after his outlandish experiments for the Army, in which he sought to make human flesh powerfully regenerative and much stronger, became ostensibly murderous, to seek out his son, Bruce, now fully grown into Eric Bana's already beefy frame with a view to finding out how his most secret, and devastating, test subject has been getting along. With a little Gamma-aided nudge in the right direction, he discovers just what his obsessive quest has been longing for as his estranged son becomes the savage and bestial personification of unquantifiable rage. Dubbed the Hulk, the massive-muscled green monster becomes the target for General Ross (Sam Elliott) who, if he can't control and dissect him wants him destroyed. And with the General's daughter, Betty (Jennifer Connelly), the only person who can calm the beast and love the soul that resides inside both incarnations, used as a pawn in the struggle between mutated might and military hardware, poor Bruce Banner is in for one helluva busy time.
Best pack some spare pants, Bruce.
“We're going to have to watch that temper of yours.”
The cast is wonderful. Just look at who you've got here. For a kick-off, you've got Nick Nolte on seriously loopy form - honestly, this guy is scary even when he is the hero of the piece, as in 48 Hrs or Extreme Prejudice, so when he's going full throttle sadist tormentor, you've just got to watch out and stand well back. Even when transformed into a majestic, cosmically-charged thought-bubble in the audience-bamboozling finale he exudes pure malevolence. The valid back-story of David Banner's obsessive experimentation and succumbing to pressure-bound rage at relentless disappointment is the bedrock of this emotive origin story. His over-the-edge deviousness and corrupted soul is precisely the demon that Bruce needs to propel his own saga, Lee's film going the extra mile in bestowing relevance to the whole preposterous scenario. Sam Elliott, who I've waxed lyrical about so many times on this site now that I've lost count, is tremendous as General Thaddeus Ross. William Hurt in the new one was appallingly one-dimensional, just a caricature really. The only element of acting that he did was during the character's drunken denouement. But Elliott, as gruff, stern and gung-ho as he is, elicits both credibility and emotion with just a vague cracking of that granite expression, or a flicker of warmth and tenderness in those flinty eyes. The sheer depth of his performance - despite the necessarily subdued qualities of Ross, himself - is so much better than his successor's that Elliot's determined and belligerent war-monger is the definitive one. I just love the way that his face betrays faint hints of frustration, fear and even awe as the Hulk keeps on evading him and overcoming every obstacle thrown in his way. Even the arrogant blonde jock, Talbot, as played by Josh Lucas is given a bit more energy and spirit than most mid-level villains in this genre. Slimy and contemptuous, he is still somewhat likeable and human. But you still long to see him get gamma-kicked into oblivion, too!
Eric Bana, fresh from Ridley Scott's awesome Black Hawk Down, was a good choice for the dedicated but withdrawn and complicated scientist-cum-angry-giant. His subdued nature and vulnerability make him both credible as Bruce - yearning, unhappy and clearly with issues - and believable as the soul that lurks behind that massive CG bloating. Although he wasn't utilised Andy Serkis-style to effect the Hulk's mannerisms, I have no problem seeing vestiges of his Bruce deep within those emerald eyes. And Jennifer Connelly, who I've always thought was a bit hit and miss, performance-wise, despite that Oscar for A Beautiful Mind, is wonderful as Betty. Even retreating from the preposterous mutated hulk-poodle she comes across as totally dedicated. A lot is conveyed with the eyes - and Connelly has the most captivating “green” ones that give so much more emotion than Liv Tyler in the more recent rendering of Betty Ross. There is a definite pain and sadness there, yet Connelly is able to mix it with a weird optimism and a beauty that goes a little deeper than most heroines, who are usually thankless and underwritten in such dramas, at best.
“And what have I done to my son, Miss Ross? Nothing. I tried to improve on the limits in myself. Myself, not him. Can you understand? To improve on nature, my nature, knowledge of one's self. It's only the path to the truth that gives men the power to go beyond God's boundaries.”
The unfinished CG dismayed the Super Bowl crowd during the movie's impatient teaser-trailer run and, truth be told, it was never, ever going to win awards for realism no matter how much more Dennis Muren and ILM tweaked it before general release. The Hulk has had heaps of attention lavished upon his gargantuan frame - muscle definition and movement, agility and expressions and the mop-top hairdo - but he still looks like a CG creation shoehorned into the frame beside his living counterparts. Yet, this cartoonic unreality hampers the evocation of the brute not one iota. Ang Lee's Hulk exists in a realm just removed from our own, his garish-hued and somewhat rubbery (bizarre considering his complete lack of actual bonafide texture) mass thundering about the periphery of our own cinematic expectations. You look at the creature itself and think, no way. But you look at him in the context of the story and the situations that he becomes embroiled in and this fakery ceases to be an issue. Some of the interaction with living actors is a little wacky - picking Betty up, Kong-style, say - but none of this, not even those notorious CG-doggies that look like something out of Tex Avery fever-dream, detracts from the sense of the fantastic.
“Oh, by the way, don't worry about the dogs. They'll be all right... as long as you don't look them in the eye.”
The power of the desert sequences, even coupled with the abstract rock and flower examinations mid-rampage is still something to behold. Look at the sheer terrifying vision of the Hulk steaming across the dunes towards a hapless bunch of tank-men whose pathetic machineguns sputter out bullets as useless as raindrops landing on a battleship, and his subsequent fury vented upon the impotent machines and their rag-doll passengers. Hulk's full realisation of his abilities - mile-long leaps serenaded by Danny Elfman's soaring score and wall-of-death canyon sprinting to the ballistic applause of thousands of high-velocity rounds - is a joyous tour de force. The San Francisco wrecking-spree is a slight disappointment, however. By this stage, we have earned a big, building-toppling smackdown - something that Leterrier's version, at least, gets right - but Lee dulls the excitement and blunts the set-piece much too early at this point. Yet something that he definitely nails is the fact that Hulk is actually scary ... very scary. The frightening intensity of the Hulk hitching a lift to the upper reaches of the atmosphere on the top of a jet fighter is the perfect example of this un-negotiable intimidation. “He'll lose consciousness before you,” Ross assures the poor pilot, bricking-it beneath the Hulk-butted canopy of his cockpit. And Hulk's first transformation, with Nolte's semi-vagrant peering out at his greatest experiment through a crack in the door. As the goliath shambles forward, the camera hanging poised on his vast shoulder, the sense of unpredictability is palpable. And this sense of danger is carried through his every Hulk-out spell. Edward Norton's beast, a much better looking creation to be sure, has no such tangible aura of threat or menace. The Hulk is pure rage - bestial and furious - yet also as bemused and perplexed as a baby. Ang Lee's version embodies all of this range but, cleverly, matches our fear of him with a pity for his Frankenstein's Monster-like innocence.
“Let's see how he likes the thin air ... take him on a ride to the top of the world ...”
Lee takes delight in the visual movement of the film. A scene-transition morphs with test-tube bubbles, there are zooms within shots, sideways-jumps and isolated segments of footage in a lopsided corner-box that subjects suddenly swerve into like some celluloid dimensional jump. And, of course, there are the split-screen comic-book panels that actually go way beyond mere 2D mimicry and tell the story from different viewpoints, both literally and emotionally at the same time. This isn't just tacky fx gimmicks-overkill, nor is it so much yawn-inducing homage to the material's roots - it is a deliberate stylistic use of image, metaphor and subtext, breaking down the narrative into chemical, compound, cell and thought. The Matrix-style use of green to slightly alter the texture of the film, the hue bleeding through the image at times almost subliminally. The use of lulls in the action, stripping away sound to place the Hulk in a state of almost mute bewilderment as he surveys the world around him, or that green-eyed girl who keeps cropping up to stall his illogical furies. Devices one and all, but far more intrinsically thought-out than you'd first assume. When Lee first approached the effects people at ILM he presented them not with storyboards or models of how he wanted his film and his monster to look, he showed them a rock, a piece of driftwood and a sandbox full of the gritty stuff - urging them to seek the emotional resonance behind such artefacts. Hardly the typical modus operandi that visual creator Dennis Muren and his crew were used to, but I find Ang Lee's oblique and surreal embracing of the material fascinating. It definitely isn't to a lot of people's tastes, but just like Batman, Bond or Doctor Who can interpreted in any number of ways and guises, the Hulk can be opened-up and examined from a variety of challenging and different angles. The original material is exactly the type of rich, possibility-rife stuff to allow such manipulation or, if you will, mutation. For Lee, the Hulk is about the veneer that we all hide behind and how this mask is both dangerous to our inner selves and, ironically, necessary if we are to go about our normal lives without pulverising everything in sight. Marvel, itself, has made a lifelong career out of pitching such absurdities to our eager imaginations, yet it rarely steps outside of the immediately fanciful to actually express those ideas in any depth. Violence and existentialism are key to Ang Lee's filmic endeavours, though. Therefore, even if his lyrical and subtextual meanderings seem alien and inappropriate to the notion of a big green leviathan - who increases in size and power the angrier he gets - he is still only ushering us through the door that Stan Lee initially, and teasingly opened.
“Even now I can feel it, buried somewhere deep inside, watching me, waiting. But you know what scares me the most? When I can't fight it anymore, when it takes over, when I totally lose control... I like it.”
The use of the children in various states of upset is powerful and upsetting. Young Bruce re-enacting the domestic violence taking place around him, all the while unaware of the grotesque mutation coursing through his vulnerable veins. The fragmentary and surreal half-dream, half-memory that Betty has of her father - the spectacularly convincing young version of Sam Elliot, played by Todd Tesen - having to rush off and leave her in the diner while disaster strikes the desert base delivers a jolt as the young girl is reduced to terrified and lonely tears ... hugely distressing to me now as my young daughter is just at that heartbreakingly tender age. Once again, for a film based on a comic book character that kids all love, the depiction of domestic violence and marital disintegration is an outrageous step to take - but one that is enormously valid to the theme of psychological torment and monstrous isolation.
This more mature aspect to the film also stretches towards the music that shapes its world and characters. Still one of the busiest superhero-movie score composers, Danny Elfman provided a strange, middle-eastern flavoured soundtrack that mingled broad dramatics and action with some crazed and esoteric themes. His customary use of strange and ethnic percussive instruments lends a quirky, otherworldly aura to the film, the unique sound of steel drums - both real and sampled - giving it a diverse and mysterious tone. His main theme isn't immediately fanfare-ish or typical of the genre, but there are still elements of Spider-Man weaving throughout his meaty, bass-heavy score even if the majority of it is buoyed by the weird and the fabulous. Just like the imagery.
Thus, Ang Lee's Hulk remains hugely enjoyable and nowhere as dumb or as badly acted as Letterier's overblown and severely insubstantial offering. It moves into darker territory, treading on a few intellectual toes along the way and provides a little more food for thought than the average comic-book movie seeks to do. Its confrontation with the Jeckyll and Hyde soul-imbalance is much more overt than the source material ever opted for and, as such, it challenges the nature of the very character it brings to the screen, probing behind the escapist - and absurdist - façade that he has hidden behind for so long. When most superhero revaluations these days strive for some emotional connection, it is only fair to remember that Lee's Hulk is the one that does so in the newest and most original manner. Bruce Wayne's parents are murdered leaving him broken and forever seeking something positively unattainable - peace. Peter Parker is the geek inside us all despite the bite of a radioactive spider. Tony Stark has a dicky-ticker. And so and so on. But Bruce Banner never had a convincing or affecting reason for his inner rage or a proper thematic catalyst for his eventual transformation. So, kudos should be given to Ang Lee and James Schamus for trying to invest their character with such incredibly strong emotional motivations for the things that befall him.
Hulk, 2003-style, is a great and tragically misunderstood movie - which I suppose is only appropriate given that this is precisely the frightening-cum-melancholic attitude that the title creature evokes in the first place. So, give this version a try if you haven't already. And, if you did a while ago and found that this wasn't the type of story you were after, why not try it again? This is a remarkable and intelligent look at one of pop culture's most gut-primal, pure instinct-driven and emphatic creations.