[Screen It]

(2003) (Eric Bana, Jennifer Connelly) (PG-13)

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Sci-fi: A scientist and his hulky alter ego must contend with various forces that want the latter's genetic makeup for military purposes.
Many years after his scientist father, David Banner (NICK NOLTE), conducted unapproved genetic experiments on himself and then passed on their aftereffects to his offspring, Bruce Banner (ERIC BANA) has followed in his footsteps by becoming a genetic researcher. Working side by side with his ex-girlfriend, Betty Ross (JENNIFER CONNELLY), Bruce hopes to find a way to make damaged cells regenerate.

Yet, when he's accidentally exposed to what should have been a lethal dose of gamma radiation, Bruce's genetic makeup is forever changed. Unbeknownst to him, pent up anger and external agitation cause his body to mutate into a monstrous, hulky being.

That development entices both Betty's four-star general father (SAM ELLIOTT) and the greedy corporate figure, Glenn Talbot (JOSH LUCAS), who wants the Hulk's genetic makeup for military purposes. From that point on and as Betty tries to help and protect the brooding Bruce, and David tries to connect with and then manipulate his son, the Hulk must contend with General Ross and the rest of the military that want to capture and then later kill him.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
In any movie, it's of utmost importance that you buy into both the story and the characters that appear within it. One needn't necessarily like the characters in any given release, but you should believe in what they are.

The rules are slightly relaxed in hand drawn or computer animated films where fantastical beings and settings coexist, but you still have to accept the character as real, even within those fantasy parameters. That gets trickier when such fabricated characters appear in films with flesh and blood performers and real locales.

Case in point was Jar Jar Binks in the latest "Star Wars" films. Not only was the character annoying, but he also never seemed real or fit in. More successful was Gollum in the last "Lord of the Rings" film where most viewers accepted the creation thanks to stellar effects and a believable performance (fashioned after a real performer's moves).

All of which brings us to the big screen adaptation of "The Hulk." Rather than painting a modern day Lou Ferrigno all green, director Ang Lee ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "The Ice Storm") has opted to use a completely computer-generated version of the character.

Of course, many such comic book characters have had a hard time fitting into their movie surroundings. That's especially true when compared to their native comic book worlds where illustrators and such artists have it far easier in making everything mesh.

Considering that the "don't get me mad" character is considerably larger than most such characters - and thus potentially more difficult to blend in with his "real" surroundings - the result could be a stellar special effects success or a sore (and very large and green) thumb. All of which means that one's appreciation of the film will depend heavily on his or her acceptance of the computer generated, title character as being real.

In my opinion, the only time the CGI Hulk remotely appears that way is in extreme close-ups of the big lug's emotive face. Beyond that, and whenever seen in full, he looks like a mediocre effect pulled from a less than state of the art videogame. I don't know if that was intentional on the part of Lee and his effects crew - I would guess and hope not - but it's certainly a step backwards from what was on display in "Final Fantasy."

The result is that the character - based on the Marvel Comics comic book created by guru Stan Lee and Jack Kirby - never looks or feels real. Some may say the same thing about the original "King Kong." Yet, one must remember that the film came out long, long ago and director Merian C. Cooper did a better job in making us care about the beast than Lee does here.

As penned by screenwriters John Turman (making his feature debut), Michael France ("Goldeneye," "Cliffhanger") and James Schamus ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "The Ice Storm"), the screenplay - which is the to be expected combination of Kong and Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" - is probably one of the more serious (read less entertaining) adaptations of a comic book to date.

In fact, its core problem is that it takes itself far too seriously, what with all of the overwrought melodrama, pondering, brooding and attempted Shakespearean style family dynamics. While some of that might have been interesting, a little of it goes a long way and there's simply far too much of all of that on display here. The result is a tedious and overlong (140 some minute) experience that's far too often bogged down by its own self-importance.

All of which is too bad since Lee has employed a number of fun and imaginative visual transitions as well as shots that show multi-panel views of what's occurring (to mimic the comic book reading experience). They're certainly better and more interesting than all of the repetitive "attack the Hulk" scenes that only reinforce the videogame feel and simply don't look realistic. Similarly, while the scenes of the Hulk running, jumping and hopping across the desert may be faithful to the comic book, they reek too much of Lee's apparent fascination with gravity-defying characters (just like in "Crouching Tiger").

As far as the real performers are concerned, Eric Bana ("Black Hawk Down," "Chopper") can't do much with his character that's smothered by all of the brooding and emotional baggage. Jennifer Connelly ("Pollock," "Requiem for a Dream") softens up the film's otherwise hard edges, but simply plays a variation of the similar character she embodied in "A Beautiful Mind."

The likes of Nick Nolte ("The Good Thief," "Trixie"), Josh Lucas ("Sweet Home Alabama," "A Beautiful Mind") and especially Sam Elliott ("We Were Soldiers," "The Contender") seem to be engaged in some sort of contest to see who can overact the best (or is that worst) and provide some of the film's best, and hopefully unintentional lines of really bad dialogue. Original Hulk Lou Ferrigno and creator Stan Lee make the obligatory cameo appearance together.

I'm sure the movie will perform like gangbusters at the box office and will likely spawn a sequel. I only hope that it 1) has a better script, 2) doesn't take itself so seriously, 3) explains how Bruce Banner's shorts expand to cover the Hulk's immense size and then shrink back down again and 4) somehow improve the special effects.

Considering that the basic plot has to do with anger issues, perhaps the studios can kill two birds with one stone and release "The Hulk in Anger Management" (I'd love to see the stunts Jack Nicholson's character would pull on the big lug). Until then, we have to put up with this long, overwrought and flawed comic book adaptation. "The Hulk" rates as just a 3.5 out of 10.

Reviewed June 17, 2003 / Posted June 20, 2003

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