When it was announced that Ang Lee was going to direct The Hulk, heads turned, mine included. He directed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Sense and Sensibility, two of the best films of the last few years; he won an Oscar. Why would he want to direct a summer action movie?
Here's the answer: He directed The Hulk, but the finished product is a long way from just another summer action movie.
Even in Hollywood, even in 2003, there's no way to find an actor big enough or makeup convincing enough to play the big green monster. So, the $100 million-plus movie hinges on this: Would audiences believe a completely computer-generated Hulk?
Could he have weight? Physical presence? Interact with people and objects even though nothing you are seeing exists anywhere other than a computer screen?
The answer? He did for me.
But that's just a part of what makes Lee's Hulk so incredible.
In the comic books, Bruce Banner was bombarded with gamma rays. In the film, his father (played by Nick Nolte, who is terrific) tampered with his own DNA and passed the mutation on to his son, adding oedipal anger and recovered memory to simple comic-book rage.
Lee's artist's eye (you saw Tiger and Sensibility) takes advantage of comic-book angles, and he splits his screen between characters the way comics split a frame to show two or three different characters reacting, paying homage to his source.
But Lee's real genius is taking what everyone expected to be one more summer superhero action film and turning it into the summer's best love story, the romance of Eric Bana, who plays Banner, and Betty Ross, portrayed by Oscar-winner Jennifer Connelly.
The Hulk will remind you of film classics Frankenstein and King Kong. On purpose, of course.
Lee's partner, producer and screenwriter, James Schamus, also teaches film history, and this time he'll make a little film history as well as he raises the bar on comic-book adaptations to something that often approaches art. You see it especially in the scenes Connelly and Bana share. Real depth, real drama, foreshadowed with tragedy.
Here's what doesn't work: The computer-generated Hulk looks great in close-ups, but in wide shots he just looks silly. You see a green cartoon bouncing off sand dunes as he crosses the Mojave Desert. They should have been cut. (The original Superman bounced, too; he didn't fly but could "leap tall buildings at a single bound." Even in comic books it looked silly, and the Man of Steel soon learned to fly).
In one sequence, the Hulk is bouncing from rock to rock, you're not sure if it's the Grand Canyon or the valley of the Jolly Green Giant. The ultimate fight scene between two computer-generated characters doesn't work at all; you're reminded at every pelt and pummel that you're watching two cartoons.
It reminded me of a story from the early days of television about a writer who'd done kids' serials on radio, where invisible characters were much in vogue (and easy to do on the radio). He wrote a fight scene between two invisible characters for a kids' TV space show. He was fired.
It's a shame The Hulk does get cartoonish at the end, but the worst thing I can say about this movie is that it's so smart, so deep, so well done, it might be too good for the teenage boy-audience these films are usually aimed at. Then again, that might be the best thing I can say about it. Grade: B+