Sunday, September 14, 2008


I guess they cut the scene where the Hulk visited downtown Chicago and tweaked the cameraman's nipples.

I think Ang Lee needs an intervention. He seems to be embarrassed by any movie he makes that might be interpreted as entertaining. Ask him to make a kung fu movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and you get a half-hour tragic love story in the desert, book-ended by hour-long blocks of people in bathrobes doing their Peter Pan impressions through the treetops. It was actually not a bad movie, but you get the impression that if you had yelled out, “Yeah, kick his ass!” in the theater, Ang Lee would have turned around and scolded you for not appreciating the tragedy he had woven.

Ask him to make a superhero movie and, oh boy, you get Hulk.
So where is this one in relation to the other 1,965 other desert bases?

Yes, Hulk. Just Hulk. I see via that the working title was The Hulk, which must have been too clunky. Why not The Incredible Hulk, which is what I thought the damn thing was called (and which the eventual sequel/reboot would actually call itself)? I can think of two possible culprits. One is the marketing department, which is always striving to make movies hip by legitimizing the pared-down, non-unwieldy titles we use anyway--that’s how we get X2 instead of X-Men 2 and Rambo instead of Rambo 4. The other suspect is Ang Lee himself. Because if we call the Hulk incredible, we’d obviously be ignoring the deep sadness inherent in this story. Personally, I thought we got enough of that at the end of every damn episode of the Bill Bixby show, but Angst Lee--I’m sorry, Ang Lee only cares about Bruce Banner’s Freudian struggle, to the point where every single event in the movie is relevant only for its impact on Banner’s psyche. I guess Banner’s emotional condition has to be a factor in a movie about a scientist who turns into a giant green monster when he’s angry, but I could have done with more “HULK SMASH!” and less “Hulk have repressed id!”

"Honey, I don't know how to tell you this, but another woman's come between us."

We start off with an army base in 1966, where a scientist with a typically hideous 1966 moustache performs some experiments on animals in his lab. We know this man is evil because he has no remorse in dismembering starfish. In the span of about ten seconds, he gets warned by a military officer that he can’t experiment on humans, experiments on himself, hears from his wife that she’s going to have a baby, and welcomes into the world his newborn son, Baby Bruce Banner. Dad knows right away that the genetic manipulation he performed on himself is now manifesting itself in his son. When the kid’s a few years old, Dad sets off some kind of impending freaky sci-fi technological disaster after hearing that his funding‘s been cut, but takes some time to have a vicious shouting match behind closed doors with his wife. We'll see the rest of this later.

Before we cut to modern-day Bruce Banner and start the long countdown to his inevitable Gamma radiation mishap, I’d like to take a moment and say a few words to the people who edited and storyboarded this film. Give it a rest. When Ang and his minions heard they were doing a movie based on a comic book, they decided to stay true to the source material by using as many wacky editing techniques as possible--y‘know, like how comic books use lots of unusual shots to fit all their information on the pages? Split screens, every manner of wipe, zooms in and out, foreground images sharpening while backgrounds blur, characters freezing and suddenly becoming outlined in comic book art, gratuitous montages of moss growing on rocks, dream sequences within flashback sequences within daydreams, metaphorical images of the Hulk trying to break out of Bruce's subconscious--if you were to lock Andy Warhol and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in a room with watercolors, paper, and forty pounds of raw opium, you couldn’t possibly get anything as goofy as this film. And many of the strange special effects are not to punctuate the big action sequences, but to distract you during the talky scenes and prevent you from paying any attention to the banal dialogue. "Hulk confused!"
I always wondered what that Angle button on my DVD remote does. Now where's the upskirt angle?

Compare this to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies, which break out the unusual editing tricks only to accentuate the dramatic sequences or add humor. It’s definitely possible for heavy-handed direction to work well in a fantasy movie, like 300, but when your only purpose for over-directing is to remind the audience that something weird is going to happen eventually, to help the audience get through intimate scenes with a terminally dull hero and heroine, you’ve got a movie without correct priorities.

As for the actual story, Bruce (now played by Eric Bana) has grown up to be a scientist at Berkeley, experimenting on frogs to try to make Gamma radiation work as some kind of miracle cure for flesh wounds or something. He’s assisted by Dr. Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly), also his recently-ex girlfriend. As funding for the experiments dries up, a sleazeball alpha male from a military contractor, Glenn Talbot (Josh Lucas, perfectly cast if absurd stereotyping was the intention) arrives to offer them jobs at ComEvilHalliburtonCorp and gobs of cash. I don’t know how he got past the Berkeley Liberal Arts professors, who turn into 28 Days Later zombies when they smell military-industrial complex blood, but that’s neither here nor there. Since the military is pure evil, Betty scoffs him and his perfectly lupine eyebrows away.
23:59:57, 23:59:58, 23:59:59...

The experiments continue to fail at anything except microwaving frogs, but a strange new janitor starts working the night shift. A strange new janitor with an unfriendly poodle, which is just about the dopiest eccentricity for a mysterious character ever, both before and after you find out what it means. The janitor (Nick Nolte, in a role inspired by his famous mug shot) is running his own experiments while Bruce is away. Okay, let’s cut all the pretenses of surprise. The dude is Bruce’s thought-to-be-dead father, and he’s not exactly lightened up over the years.
Eric Bana reacts in horror to Jennifer Connelly's sudden unleashing of an emotion.

It’s finally time for the Gamma radiation disaster, and it actually comes and goes pretty quickly, without much excitement or grandeur. I would have thought that in a big-budget action movie, they would have made this seminal event something pretty exciting, but all we get is Bruce zapped with an odd photographic effect, another montage, and then Bruce recovering in a hospital bed. I was amazed by how lame the scene was until I realized that being hit by these Gamma rays is a relatively minor event in Bruce’s story. He doesn’t become the Hulk. He’s always been the Hulk, due to his father‘s messed-up genes. Not that I’m a particular prude about this character, but I find it a bit distasteful that “accident” origin story has been completely warped into a “destiny” origin story, all so that Ang Lee and his screenwriters can pull a predictable daddy issues/repressed memories angle out of their backsides. The Hulk has been in Bruce since his childhood, and the accident just lets him loose. I liked it when the Hulk condition was a freak of science that was his own damn fault, when the story was less about exploring his repressed memories, and more about Bruce just trying to figure out what to do with himself. At least the sequel/remake/apology to this film would get it right.
"Let me consult with the 'stache before I give you my answer."

While Bruce recovers, Betty meets her father, General “Thunderbolt” Ross (Sam Elliot, who has all the range of a Manny Ramirez bobblehead doll). He probably got his nickname because his moustache resembles a cartoon bolt of lightning. Seriously, I had a difficult time looking at the guy; the thing was so neatly-defined, yet crooked, pulling away from his lip on the left side. You can count every single strand of hair in it. I spent the movie convinced that the moustache was going to detach itself and become the lead villain. Anyway, Betty wants to meet her dad to ask him to get Talbot to back off, but Gen. Ross also wants in on her and Bruce’s research. She says to him, “I had hoped you’d just wanted to see me,” playing the victim even though she wasn’t there out of love for him either. I think Hulk might out-do the show Lost for highest density of characters with crappy fathers. Gen. Ross also happens to be the military officer that shut down the elder Banner originally, so he’s more aware of what’s going on than Betty thinks.
Connelly facial expression now within defined limits. Cancel Red Alert.

Papa Banner reveals his identity to Bruce while he’s in the hospital, as well as his intention to continue the research with or without Bruce’s permission. Later, while working at night in the lab, Bruce starts to randomly get angry for no apparent reason. Sure, he eventually gets a phone call from Betty that pisses him off when she says that Talbot’s still harassing them, but the man was convulsing in forced rage beforehand, looking like he was either constipated or about to eject an alien from his chest. He turns into the Hulk and smashes the lab to bits. Good job, Ang. You know, when I always imagined Banner turning into the Hulk, I imagined him getting a random hissy fit in an empty laboratory and smashing a bunch of beakers. The drama of the scene isn’t helped by the fact that the Hulk has the jerky movements of a 1930's stop-motion animation monster, or the fact that this olive green embodiment of white-hot fury has Eric Bana’s dopey face and gets all mellow when he encounters his father. Awwww. "Hulk no smash. Hulk have moment."
Scarves are absolutely essential for keeping your neck warm in California in the summer.

After the destruction of the lab, Gen. Moustache essentially figures out what has happened to Bruce, being well aware of his father’e experiments. Papa Banner, furious that his old enemy Gen. Moustache was brought into the mix, sics his dogs on Betty. Yes, he dispatches the dogs that have been infused with some of Bruce’s DNA. Hulk dogs. So when Bruce gets wind of this, breaking out of his house arrest as the Hulk to go find Betty at her cabin in the woods, he squares off against a trio of Hulk-dogs, including a poodle. At the very least, for all the flaws in his movie, Ghost Rider never fought a bunch of dogs with flaming skulls. This is a fight that more than slightly resembles something out of King Kong, if you replace Kong with a cartoony green giant with Eric Bana’s face and unbelievably stretchy pants, and replace the T-Rex with a POODLE!
"What am I wearing? What does that have to do with... Wait a minute! You're not John Zogby!"

After the Hulk wins, Betty actually does the reasonable thing and turns Bruce over to the military. I say reasonable because we know it’s going to happen anyway, and this movie’s already getting long, as is this review. Banner’s sedated and shipped to an underground army base in the desert; judging by the music, I can only assume the base is in Saudi Arabia. Here, Betty pleads with her father to help Bruce, but the moustache’s host says that Talbot’s in charge now, and he’s only interested in reproducing Bruce’s Hulkism as a weapon, and disposing of the younger Banner when he’s done. Naturally, in true King Kong rip-off fashion, they push Bruce a bit too hard, injecting him with some kind of hallucinogen that helps Bruce remember the truth: his father tried to kill him after his firing ended his chances of curing Bruce’s heretofore unmanifested condition, but he accidentally killed his wife instead. Frankly, I think convincing his son to not go into a line of work that involves copious amounts of Gamma radiation would have done the trick, but then again, Dad did have a hideous moustache of his own, so maybe he wasn’t thinking clearly. Bruce hulks out, breaks his restraints, and busts out of the base, killing Talbot along the way by turning him into a cartoon (seriously; watch the movie if you dare). Now I have to admit that here, all the split screens and camera tricks actually work pretty well, now that it’s used to give a sense of scale to a big fight scene, as opposed to a scene of Betty dreamily telling off Talbot in her office.

"Hulk no like aqua-massage machine at the mall!"

Out in the desert, Hulk is harassed by tanks and helicopters for a while, and smashes them up in ways that supposedly don’t kill any of the army men inside. Good for him, because you can’t really blame the soldiers too much for following orders and shooting at the giant green monster stomping toward a city. Hulk makes his way to San Francisco, and Betty, by leaping vast distances across the desert. I never read the comics, but I wasn’t aware that one of the Hulk’s major powers was reducing his own body weight so that he can leap across ZIP codes and barely kick up sand as he lands. He also gets real mellow in the desert, staring at fungus growing on rocks in hushed awe, and posing mid-air like he’s on the bow of the frikkin’ Titanic. I thought that when the Hulk gets mellow, he stops being the Hulk, but while that happens when he finally meets Betty in San Francisco and is taken in again by the military, he conveniently stays in Hulk form up to that point.
I'm pretty sure any caption I could come up with would only diminish the impact of this image.

While the military again tries to decide what to do with him, Bruce is taken that night to a hangar and chained to some apparatus that’ll fry him with electricity if he hulks out. For whatever reason, they allow his father to meet with him. While Bruce has been away, his father’s been replicating Bruce’s Gamma radiation experiment on himself, which has not turned him into a second Hulk, but rather into a different freak, one that Wikipedia says is essentially Absorbing Man from the comics. I support Ang Lee 100% in not ever mentioning that name. Dad can now absorb and transform his body into anything he touches, which apparently includes both energy (electricity) and various forms of matter (metal, rock, water).
When you subscribe to DirecTV, you'll get 300 channels of Hulk, and with a 12-month subscription, you'll also get another 200 channels of Hulk in HD!

Dad absorbs the electricity in the Army’s death-trap failsafe device, and pulls Bruce through the air into the desert again, leading to one of the strangest final fights you’ll ever see in a superhero movie. Not only has Absorbing Dad come completely out of left field, but the Hulk doesn’t even win. He fights back at first, but it’s kind of hard to beat a guy who can turn into a gigantic monster made out of water or electricity. Most superheroes would come up with some kind of clever Mythbusters-style solution to make him react with sodium or something, but admittedly, the Hulk’s a bit dumb and a bit unprepared for this. It’s not until the Army suddenly pulls some kind of sci-fi bomb out of its ass and drops it on Dad that the fight ends. Bruce just kind of disappears, and winds up hiding in South America a year later, where he’s giving medicine to villagers (who apparently live in the middle of the jungle). When government thugs arrive to take the medicine, Bruce finally says (through subtitles) the line you’ve waited for him to say: “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” Bravo. Now have him say it in English.

Pete Townsend completes another concert performance; National Guard intervenes. News at 11.

I’m not criticizing Ang Lee for trying to do something different with a superhero movie. But the complete overkill of imagery, much of it only tangentially related to the action at hand, gets really distracting. And they should have called this movie The Hulk’s Dad, because he’s the only remotely interesting character in the movie, even if he’s ultimately just another obsessed scientist. Bruce never does anything on his own in human form until the epilogue, and his climactic action in the big superhero fight scene is to give up to his father and ask him to absorb the Hulk power, rather than stand up and fight on against evil. That’s a man I want to cheer for.

Status Report: Connelly expression showing trace amounts of wonder, fear, confusion, and arousal. All systems normal.

The 2008 remake/reboot The Incredible Hulk was a far more generic, by-the-books superhero action movie, although it learned from the mistakes of the first film. For example:
  • The first time you show the man hulking out, have it happen against villains, not against inanimate objects.
  • You don’t have to make Bruce Banner a typical superhero, but it would be nice to see him do something vaguely heroic, rather than just act like a broken puppy until his next Hulk episode. Learning to do something good with his Hulk power is supposed to be the whole point of this character. The 2008 movie put Bruce far more in control of his destiny, and concluded with him accepting and taking control of his power.
  • The Hulk is supposed to be scary and intimidating, not just pathetic.
  • Most fans would rather see a comic book character depicted faithfully in a movie, rather than see a gross distortion of that character (again, from what I understand of him as a non-Hulk fan) in a movie that actively attempts to look like a comic book.
  • Put Iron Man in the movie. Iron Man makes everything better. They should have put Iron Man in Babel and had him kick Brad Pitt‘s ass.
THIS is why we leave the Christmas tree unplugged when Uncle Nick comes over.

Definitely give Ang Lee credit for trying a wide variety of movies, even though I’m not interested in seeing a lot of them, and I’m sure he’s a very good director when he’s in his element. But when the supernatural elements in your movie come across as odd more so than awesome or exciting, and your personal drama is played out by actors in dire need of Prozac, you lose. "Hulk bored."

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