Not So Jolly Giant

Pecs appeal: Don't make him angry; you wouldn't like him when he's angry.

No quest is more quixotic in hollywood than producing a comic-book movie with real emotional depth. Recent attempts like Spider-Man and Daredevil wedge some angst and weepiness into the mix, but the results seem tactical—a way to broaden the films’ mostly young-male demographic. Ang Lee’s The Hulk, on the other hand, openly embraces the deep-dish emotionalism associated with modern-day comic-book superheroes. The film is often psychologically dark and roiling as well as tender. Despite the profusion of computer-generated effects, which rousingly bring the green guy to life, I often felt, for better and for worse, that I was watching a comic-book movie reconceived as a piece of serious mythmaking.

For Ang Lee, this approach makes sense: He may be many things as a director, but he has no pulp in his soul. As Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon demonstrated, his passion is for spiritualizing pulp, for unleashing its visual and conceptual beauty. Viewed strictly as a thrill ride, The Hulk isn’t a pop sensation, and some of Lee’s seriousness is more glum than resonant. But it’s an honorable, if highly uneven, attempt to make a “personal” movie derived from the most improbable of sources. Anybody expecting a big-screen version of the Lou Ferrigno–Bill Bixby late-seventies TV show, or even of the comics character created by Marvel’s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, is going to feel hornswoggled.

The young Australian actor Eric Bana plays the emotionally repressed genetic scientist Bruce Banner, who receives an accidental blast of gamma radiation and realizes to his horror, and horrified delight, that he contains within himself a rampaging monster. Bruce’s inner Hulk—his id personified—comes to the fore whenever his anger flares. The bigger his anger, the bigger he gets. Lee is canny about showing us little shadowy teasers of the Hulk before we finally get a full view; when he bounds high into the air, pogo-ing across the desert from canyon to crest with the Army, led by General “Thunderbolt” Ross (Sam Elliott), in fierce pursuit, the sheer exuberance of this creature is catchy. The sequence has some of the magic-carpet buoyancy of the martial leaps in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Being a crazed monster can’t be all that bad if you can make jumps like these.

Lee and his screenwriters, John Turman, Michael France, and James Schamus, soft-pedal the Hulk’s rage by making all his megatantrums absolutely justifiable: He is attacked by savage dogs; by a smarmy military scientist (Josh Lucas); by jet fighters; and, finally, by his bedraggled renegade-scientist father, played by a powerfully creepy Nick Nolte. Only Bruce’s colleague and ex-love Betty (Jennifer Connelly) has the ability to calm him down to normal size (no wonder he’s angry—his girlfriend makes him smaller). She still loves him and keeps trying to draw out the repressed childhood memories that terrorize him. After a movie like The Matrix: Reloaded, with all its Jungian and Hegelian hoo-ha, it’s almost endearing to watch a movie so simplistically Freudian.

But there is nothing inherently malevolent about the Hulk—he is no more a villain than Frankenstein’s monster or King Kong—and so the full metaphoric horror of what can be unleashed by a person’s unconscious is skimped. The Hulk is, in the end, just another “misunderstood” behemoth. And yet there is a black torment to him that overrides the sentimentality. Lee, with his cinematographer, Frederick Elmes, who shot Blue Velvet, has created a few sequences that are almost unreasonably terrifying, especially one in which the Hulk clings for his life to a jet as it zooms into the stratosphere. Lee is tapping into anxieties that go beyond the usual range of superhero turmoil; it’s as if he were drawing on his “own” inner Hulk.

Throughout the film, Lee experiments, not always successfully, with split-screen effects that simulate comic-book graphics, and he carefully differentiates the flat realism of the naturalistic scenes from the transcendent computer-generated escapades (executed by ILM). What’s unsettling is how Lee mutates the two halves of his visual imagination: His realism begins to look almost otherworldly in its clarity while the imaginative moments assume the logic and familiarity of real experience. The result is perhaps the most elegantly shot, and certainly the most disturbing, of the recent fantasy films.

The police comedy Hollywood Homicide, which was directed and co-written by Ron Shelton, has the singular virtue of liberating Harrison Ford from his staunchly dull self. Playing an L.A. homicide detective who moonlights as a real-estate agent, Ford brings some giddiness to the proceedings. It’s been a long time—you have to go back to Star Wars and the Indiana Jones movies, actually—since Ford has seen fit to unclamp his jaw and be loosey-goosey. He’s not entirely at home with comedy anymore, but at least he’s trying. Otherwise, the movie, which co-stars the staunchly dull Josh Hartnett as Ford’s partner, who moonlights as a yoga instructor, is a frustrating blend of the sharply funny and the ploddingly generic. Although he does them well enough, we don’t really need Ron Shelton to give us the same old skidding-U-turn cop-thriller theatrics. He’s a much more distinctive talent than this crass spree allows for.

In brief: The young writer-director Eric Eason has a real gift for imparting a documentary feel to staged experience. Despite too much wobbly camerawork and quick, overemphatic cutting, his first feature, Manito, starring Franky G as an ex-con trying to bolster his studious younger brother (Leo Minaya), has an appealing rawness… . Rob Reiner’s Alex and Emma prompts the perennial question, Why isn’t Kate Hudson in better comedies? How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days was bad enough. This new one, where she plays a stenographer employed by Luke Wilson to record his novel-in-progress, isn’t much better. The novel, set in the twenties, is re-created in snippets and also stars the two actors. The real and the imagined are meant to mix. Life imitates art, except there’s precious little of either here.

The Hulk
Directed by Ang Lee; starring Eric Bana and Jennifer Connelly.

Hollywood Homicide
Directed by Ron Shelton; starring Harrison Ford and Josh Hartnett.

Not So Jolly Giant