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Big and green and mad as hell 

Now and then a motion picture comes along that actually deserves all those superlatives that clog the daily prose of most reviewers, that sends them digging through their thesauruses for bouquets of compliments, that inspires them to deploy all the artillery in their sadly depleted arsenals of praise. The Hulk, alas and alack, is undoubtedly one of those pictures. Like the huge title character, the movie inspires not only awe, but also a certain amplitude in adjectives and adverbs --- it is astonishingly excessive, spectacularly violent, prodigiously long, ponderously slow, immensely expensive, wonderfully stupid, and absolutely atrocious.

            After decades of success in the ephemeral world of the comic book, a couple of animated cartoons, and a long-running television series, a theatrical movie about the great green monster should amount to betting on a sure thing. Directed by Ang Lee, whose distinguished career includes such titles as Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, and most recently, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the film should automatically carry perhaps a trifle more prestige than the usual summer blockbuster originating in a comic book. Even with the considerable assistance of $150 million, however, the director's experienced hand and subtle touch cannot chisel any genuine emotional or intellectual resonance from the crude materials of fantastic transmutation.

            One of the greatest problems in the movie derives from a script that apparently attempted to match the dimensions of its protagonist. Instead of that old standby of comic book superheroes, the scientist purposely or accidentally imbibing or injecting himself with some secret formula, The Hulk constructs a prolonged back story in reiterated flashbacks concerning the childhood of Bruce Banner (the Hulk in mufti), his scientist father, his inherited genetic inclination to change into the angry green giant, and so forth. It takes almost an hour, in fact, for Banner (Eric Bana) to undergo the transformation we've all been waiting for --- some members of the audience may have felt themselves congealing long before the protagonist --- and vent his considerable anger for the rest of the movie jumping about the landscape in his shorts, knocking helicopters out of the sky, batting fungoes with a tank cannon, and ruining the San Francisco skyline.

            A number of visual allusions underline the story's dependence on myths of transformation and giantism, and such literary and cinematic classics as Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and one of my own ace favorites, the 1933 masterpiece, King Kong. Perhaps motivated by the size of the budget and the callow pretentiousness of the comic itself, the scriptwriters provide a number of other, essentially irrelevant, and mostly ridiculous stories and characters --- Jennifer Connelly as the Hulk's love interest, Sam Elliott as her father (who also ends up nuking the big guy), and above all, in one of the great examples of horribly hysterical performance in our era, Nick Nolte as David Banner, Bruce's murderous, demented father. Most of the time Nolte delivers his lines as if they were in some foreign language he hadn't yet mastered. Both his speech and his actions achieve a sort of perfect incomprehensibility.

            Ang Lee, his writers, and a whole township of set designers, scene painters, electricians, camera operators, computer experts, and special-effects technicians of all kinds attempt to mirror some of the appearance and tone of the comic book. Lee constantly splits the screen to show the action as if it were occurring in those varied panels of the original source, employs deep focus to shoot characters in closeup while action takes place in the background, and now and then colors his scenes with the smeary, limited palette of the comic artists. The considerable time devoted to matters preceding the transformation involves just the sort of pretension that the folks at Marvel Comics boast about --- a heavy-handed exploration of matters of paternity, identity, and destiny, with self-important references to Greek myth, Beowulf, Sophocles, Homer, and maybe a bit of Dante here and there. A little college is a dangerous thing.

            The bloated pseudo-intellectualism of the script ultimately ends with all the usual battles and explosions, with enough firepower to qualify as weapons of mass destruction, and then settles into the pursuit of Bruce Banner. From that point on, paradoxically, the picture actually creates even more boredom than all the shallow emotionalism of the back story, achieving a more shocking transformation than Bruce Banner's by making an action flick duller than an Eric Rohmer domestic comedy, duller than a Senate debate on agricultural policy, duller than the Golf Channel, duller than Dick Cheney. Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility actually exhibits more action, violence, and excitement than The Hulk.

            The movie obviously demonstrates the perennial theme of just about all the incarnations of the great green goon --- the transformational effect of anger on even the gentlest of beings. Like the many manifestations of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, it suggests the huge, raging beast that lurks within the dedicated, sincere scientist. Except that in this case, no intoxicating formula, but appropriately for our time, an artificially created genetic defect works the metamorphosis. The Hulk's rage, at least in part, springs from the manifold frustrations of modern life, perhaps the one useful idea in this endless, clotted mess of a motion picture.

The Hulk, starring Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly, Sam Elliott, Josh Lucas, Nick Nolte, Paul Kersey, Cara Buono, Todd Tesen, Kevin Rankin. Celia Weston, Mike Erwin; story by James Schamus; screenplay by John Turman, Michael France, and James Schamus; directed by Ang Lee. Cinemark Tinseltown; Hoyts Greece Ridge; Loews Webster; Pittsford Plaza Cinema; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal Henrietta.

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