Hulk Smash Poodle! (Hulk, 2003)
Truthfully, the idea of “get the visionary behind Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon to direct this film” struck me as brilliant. So I went into this film with a bias towards it.
Hulk is definitely made more for the comic reader than the person who loved the show as a kid. That said, it takes great liberties. Liberties are not bad, and sometimes are greatly understandable. Especially considering that the Hulk had decades as an established character who was constantly changing.
Right away, Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) is established as a rather emotionless guy. Not really emotionless, but suppressed. He just keeps taking hits like a punching bag. His relationship to Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly) seems to be in limbo. Greedy private sector profiteer Talbot (Josh Lucas) is trying to sweep Betty off her feet. Betty’s father Thunderbolt Ross (Sam Elliot) is not impressed with Banner. And the new night janitor is kind of a weirdo.
While working on an experiment, something goes wrong. Bruce saves his assistant, but traps Bruce in the room while Betty and the assistant watch in horror-expecting to see Banner die. Miraculously, it seems, he survives. Unknown to anyone he has changed.
Bruce gets frustrated and his temper builds, unleashing years of repression he becomes a big, hulking green monster. A mass of muscles, unable to communicate beyond growls and roars. Talbot sees dollars signs, Thunderbolt sees a weapon, Betty wants to save him and the creepy janitor is just still creepy.
It is soon revealed that the creepy janitor is actually Nick Nolte-or rather Bruce’s long lost father. Father is not back because he missed his son, but rater because he is a mad scientist wanting his son’s genetic material. Ew. That sounds gross. He uses some of Bruce’s blood to create a formula to make Hulk Dogs. Really. Including a poodle. Betty has discovered who the janitor truly was and that he was up to no good. Betty is stalked by the hounds, but the Hulk battles the Hulk Dogs to the death.
Eventually, it is made clear that the accident merely released the Hulk, but that the but that the power was in Bruce’s genetics, as his father injected Bruce with some sort of enhancement drug he was working on for General Ross. Apparently, it drove Father crazy, but Bruce just got really repressed.
All attempts to subdue the Hulk end in failure. Then, while trying to replicate his son’s “success”, father gives himself some kind of vague absorbing powers. He sets up a meeting with Bruce, attended by the army. They have Bruce hooked up to a chair that will electrocute him before he can change. So, of course, father absords the electricity. He then tries to get Bruce to transform. The fight that ensues is…well, the most “Huh” I have seen in a few minutes time ever.
In the end, the Father absorbs the Hulk, turns into a giant amoeba and is killed by Hulk’s rage. Or something. In the end, everyone thinks Bruce is dead, but we find out he is hiding in the jungle.
Ang Lee does a lot of visually interesting stuff in this film, he plays around with imitating comic book panels. He has a keen eye for the importance of backgrounds. Really, Lee seems great on paper.
The cast is solid. Bana makes for a terrific Bruce Banner, and I would have happily forked over money to see him in the role again. Josh Lucas is an appropriately amusing scheming douche-bag. Connelly is good, though the role is not very demanding. Sam Elliot is ideal for the role, which calls for his patented combo of gruff exterior and kind protector. Nolte is the odd man out, but that is because his character is a confusing mess. It is a thankless role, which is unfortunate.
The effects are pretty solid, the Hulk looks good most of the time. They have some neat concepts at work, like the more force used against the Hulk, the larger he gets. The big fight sequences with the military work pretty well.
As I mentioned, taking liberties are not inherently bad. But the whole idea that it was not the experiment that changed Bruce, but rather something done by his father to him…just feels like forced pathos. I admit, I always liked the hokey “saving Rick Jones and getting hit with the gamma blast” of the comics over the film and television take of a science room experiment gone wrong.
The subplot of the father is entirely unnecessary, and as a villain, the Father (the character has no name in the film other than the Father) briefly gets cool powers that he instantly understands how to use. And then proceeds to use in the dullest way possible to fight the Hulk. For reasons that do not fully make sense.
The biggest crime is…well, this is a Hulk movie. Your Big Bad should not be something the Hulk cannot hit. This is not Superman here, where you try and balance brains and brain. The Hulk is not a tactical fighter . He is a mass of angry muscle. You need to give an equal threat, but one that creates a visually interesting bit of combat. The Hulk jumping between clouds (yes, you read that right) and getting frozen in a lake? Not compelling action.
The worst part? The final few minutes are totally the start of a movie I want to see. We see Banner hiding out in the jungle helping the locals with his medical knowledge. Guerillas burst into the camp demanding medicines from Bruce and being quite aggressive. He utters that great line… “Don’t make me angry…you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” And BAM! End of movie.
So, Ang Lee, not quite as successful as Bryan Singer. The formula is not always going to work, even when you take someone with great skill as a director. Sometimes, they just are not the right fit. And with three screenwriters, it is hard to tell where the story started giong off the rails? First draft? Second draft? The film ends up not being all that