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. "The Hulk"

If you're a producer who is going to do a movie about a powerful character lifted from the pages of a comic strip, one who is more intimidating than heroic and therefore would be in need of sensitivity and understanding, you might sign director Ang Lee to the job. After this Taiwan-born 49 year old proved his acumen with a story and its characters in the oh so English drama, "Sense and Sensibilities," he's been one of the go-to guys when you want the work of a master story-teller.

The craft in presenting the back story of "The Hulk" -- of his humanity, his relationships, his problematic past and his genetic gift -- is, if anything, sensitive, but just a bit overdone and prolongued. It seems like hours before we get a look at the big boy we all come to see in this action movie. Talk about developing a character from whole cloth or, in this case, from pen and ink, this effort needs to be ranked among the valiant.

We start with a scientist, David Banner (Paul Kersey) who, for years, has been studying how one might go beyond the limitations of ordinary human life in the lab and, ultimately, to create a superhuman. When his outlandish experiments are discovered, and he's banned from the lab, he uses himself as a guinea pig, injecting a serum to alter his DNA. This starts a process of gene change that's not exactly under control.

David Banner fathers a son, Bruce, whom he sees him as an extension of his laboratory experiments. Furthermore, he's passed on his genetic modifications to the boy who, growing up, senses a strangeness that disturbs his dreams, his memory and his ability to completely relax.

Bruce's inheritance has led him toward science and, when we see him as an adult (Eric Bana, the voice of a friendly shark in "Finding Nemo"), he's busy in his lab with girlfriend, Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly), also conducting experiments concerning genetic mutation. We see one experiment go wrong and this is followed by a runaway machine that emits gamma rays. Bruce, in attempting to rescue his lab helper, is exposed to a full shot of the deadly particles. Only, he doesn't die.

Instead, the gamma rays have fueled the potential growth mechanism that's been stored in the cells of his body, another being that's been residing within him just awaiting the right excitation to become animated. All that's required now for its total realization is a bit of emotional stimulus, like extreme anger.

This guy is all about anger, power and the satisfaction of besting those who imperil him. This guy doesn't just go postal, he embodies brute force and immediate regeneration. He's his father's son without wanting to be.

This digitally morphed creature is designed (by CGI house, ILM) for super strength and sensitivity of expression beyond pure rage. Closeups will have you crying and wanting to coo at him, "everything's going to be all right, Brucey." Where it goes wrong and reveals its two-dimensional concepts, is where he springs around the lower atmosphere as though super strength includes bouncing levitation. The figure becomes toy-like at such times, but the story brings you back to his insubstantial universe.

If anything locks you into a zone of familiarity once the genes explode into angry-Bruce ("The Hulk"), it's the acting earnestness of Jennifer Connelly, lab assistant, girl friend, daughter of Bruce's dangerously powerful nemesis, General "Thunderbolt" Ross. Connelly, so impressive in "A Beautiful Mind" became a favorite actress of mine when I saw her capability for noirish mystery in "Dark City." To me, she can do no wrong.

Nick Nolte as the latter day father David Banner, on the other hand, is another story. Why do they write such over the edge dialogue for this guy? If there's anyone who can't connect on a plane of simple humanity, it's him. His theatrical tendency leads his interpretation of the evil scientist into doing him like a 1920s exaggeration of madness and melodrama.

The admirable Sam Elliott seems to be trying to live up to his "Thunderbolt" image in almost every line, another bit of off-putting obviousness that exhausts itself into a more docile and understanding character in the last act. And, what's a comic strip movie without a little homage? Lou Ferigno, the first "Hulk", is brought onscreen in a brief cameo as a security guard.

All good comic strips have, within their basic framework and superhuman hero some message for humanity. Here we have the caution against the ego consumed scientist playing god. Do we have a timely warning for the clone labs here? Geneticists, biotechnologists, take note.

It make you wonder if they considered renaming him in the face of "Bruce, Almighty," inviting derision. Then, too, doesn't his green 3-dimensional animation design invite comparison to that good fellow, Shrek? But, having said that, it must be added that the attention to detail in the facial animation is pretty outstanding and may set a new high mark for the CG geniuses.

Despite the negatives which ultimately overbalance the film, there are moments when Ang Lee's talent succeeds in creating taut expectation. During these moments the audience is rapt and silent, in the grip of suspense. The trouble is that pacing and fascination are too often lost in the repetition inherent in a two hour and eighteen minute running time. So are the serious messages concerning repressed memories, the horrors of mutation, sinning parents and defenseless children.

Despite the Hulk's destructive combat with advanced military machines, weaponry and law enforcement, the real war seems to be between the human story Lee tries so hard to create and the underlying interest of the studio's thirst for action and colorful destruction to satisfy their youth market. Well, that's who's coming to the theatre for this one.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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The Hulk breaks loose from a top-secret U.S. military containment center.

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