First let's clear up the rumors.
When Universal unveiled a trailer of "The Hulk" months ago, the Internet began buzzing about how cheesy the creature looked and subsequently how disastrous the movie was likely to be. Allegedly, the studio released the images before the special effects department had completed them.
In "The Hulk," the not-so-jolly green giant proves to be a visual masterpiece. Whether running, jumping or (mostly) breaking things, the digital behemoth seamlessly blends into the tangible environment. Even in scenes that are essentially mindless battles of unleashed aggression -- pitting him against foes ranging from U.S. armed forces to mutated canines -- this Hulk is a smashing success.
If only the story were as dynamic.
Director Ang Lee ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") semi-faithfully brings the 1962 comic book character to the screen. Yet he also imbues the "superhero" tale with a brooding sense of evolutionary dread and a heavy dose of existentialism.
Call it a post-nuclear Jekyll and Hyde story.
Or "King Kong" with the ape role replaced by a scientist with intimacy issues.
Or "Shrek" meets "The Ice Storm."
Whatever the description, "The Hulk" is one odd beastie.
Like most comic adaptations, the tale begins as a flashback to happier times. Young Bruce Banner becomes an unknowing guinea pig for his scientist father, who is involved with genetic research for the military. After a childhood trauma forces him to grow up with little memory of his past or his birth parents, the adult Bruce (Eric Bana) begins biological experimentation in a similar field.
Joined by Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly), a fellow researcher and ex-girlfriend, Bruce succumbs to a lab accident that exposes his body to a normally fatal blast of gamma radiation. Subsequently, the man begins blacking out while enjoying "a dream of rage, power and freedom."
What's really happening is that physical stress triggers a transformation, turning the bookworm into a gargantuan green creature that is physically impervious and outrageously powerful.
Soon the military, led by Betty's father General "Thunderbolt" Ross (Sam Elliott), is pursuing Banner/the Hulk before he has "a mood swing in a populated area." Also involved is a greedy colleague from a rival corporation (Josh Lucas) and a frazzled figure (Nick Nolte) lurking in the shadows who may hold the key to Banner's past.
The third Marvel Comics adaptation of 2003 -- following "Daredevil" and "X2: X-Men United" -- is both the most ambitious and least satisfying of the lot. But "The Hulk" is approached with such skill that it's possible to forgive its numerous shortcomings.
The Taiwan-born Lee has built his reputation on marshaling convincing images and fine acting performances. He certainly delivers on the visual end of the spectrum. Beyond just the CGI effects, "The Hulk" uses multi-screen editing to simulate the comic book panels of the source material. These are accented with some truly creative editing transitions from one scene to another, perhaps punctuating the film's primary theme of transformation.
The performances are a little harder to digest.
The screenplay by John Turman, Michael France and frequent Lee collaborator James Schamus provides few reasons to care about these characters. Bana (last seen in "Black Hawk Down") and Oscar winner Connelly are competent in the leads, but they are forced to act with such internal angst that they quickly become a depressing pair.
Rarely does the actress exit a conversation without a tear streaming down her cheek.
Particularly hard to get a handle on is Nolte's character. Sure, from a casting standpoint, there is nobody more qualified to play an unkempt, belligerent crackpot. But his motivations throughout the film are an enigma. Is he trying to protect humanity from his creation, gain the power for himself or just take revenge on his enemies? Even though there is an intriguing addition to his "personality" in the third act, his ultimate confrontation with Bruce makes for a laughingly confusing finale.
Lee desperately strives to bring some gravitas to the proceedings, yet the harder he tries, the more energy is sapped out of what is frequently an electrifying picture. (Having a WAY TOO LONG intro/origin doesn't help the pacing any.)
This leaves the speechless, digitally spawned Hulk with the burden of the film resting on his massive shoulders.
Hey, it's not easy being green.