This inedible bulk
I'll say one thing for Marvel's latest remake of their latest action hero, Louis Leterrier's The Incredible Hulk (2008): it's made me actually appreciate the elliptical exercise in mythmaking that was Ang Lee's film (named simply (and--ironic, this--far less pretentiously) Hulk (2003)).
I'm not kidding; where Lee's Hulk was talky, slow, complex, this one's loud and full of special effects (digital effects at that); where the former evokes a hero's genesis from Freudian impulses (he's basically the product of his father's ambitions and sexual urges, combined with his own invention ('nanomeds'--tiny robots capable of repairing the human body)), the latter merely borrows the TV show's creation scene (basically a pair of X-ray machines gone haywire) and immediately gets it on with the bang-bang.
To be fair, Edward Norton is a far more intense, far more inventive actor than Eric Bana, and Norton in the remake (he helped write the script, and acted as producer) is given more than equal status, more than equal screen time, than his digitally conceived, gamma-irradiated counterpart. This Banner is no wimp; as Norton plays him, he's an agile, quick-witted backpacker determined to learn Portuguese, intent on taking up Brazilian jiu-jitsu (and the anger management techniques offered with the training). He also has an intensely introverted, distracted aura about him; even when talking to someone else, he has a caginess that's fascinating (and yes, a lovely Brazilian girl finds herself intrigued), a sense that he's looking past you at some object of concern in the distance. Bana's Banner in comparison is a passive wet noodle--maybe his most interesting moment is his admitting that "when it comes over me, when I totally lose control…I like it." That, and when Glenn Talbot (Josh Lucas) brutally beats him up to force a change--the feeling of luxurious masochism emanating from the scene makes one want to raise a brow, maybe two.
That said, it isn't part of Lee's concept that Bruce Banner be the low-key action hero that Norton is; Lee's Banner is entirely victim and child, fresh-born into knowledge of his extra identity, and helpless in the face of both it (his other identity) and society's reaction to it (the government badly wants possession of said second identity, for potential military development)--can one blame him for curling up and allowing people to kick him senseless? As a classic victim of parental abuse, repressed memories and disturbing nightmares play a significant role in this Banner's subliminal landscape (he has an endless number of them), and even Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly, whose clear-eyed beauty for once looks good, at least compared to the considerably more vapid Liv Tyler) has her share (one involves her own father turning into Banner, and choking the life out of her). Lee's "Hulk" isn't a matter of gamma radiation turning Banner's cells into an extreme case of steroid overdose; the curse is in him, in his father's seed passed on to the son; it's as much a part of him as his subconscious (later Talbot cunningly goes to that precise corner of Banner's mind to provoke transformation). "I like it," Bana's Banner whispers, and it's an intimate confession, as if he's admitting to his girlfriend that he's into water-sports, maybe some light spanking. Think of an abuse victim, guiltily recalling or re-enacting past events in a desperate attempt at re-capturing the feeling of his parents' love; remember that at least twice in the film (the first time, and the time when he's put in a sensory deprivation chamber) his change isn't a response to mere physical pain or aggression, but to inner traumas, boiling up from within.
Norton can give his Banner all the appearance of introvertedness he wants, but beyond his own performance there really isn't much more to say about the picture; it's a fun, rather dumb comic-book action flick, little else; Lee by way of comparison is so contrary he doesn't even allow a glimpse of the monster until some forty minutes into the movie; has his Hulk battle a giant, gamma-radiated poodle (don't ask); reels it all in and creates an incomprehensible, barely visible climax that satisfied few viewers in the picture's initial commercial run--much less the Hulk fans, who like to see him smash.
A lot is trashed in the remake, including whatever sense of complex characterization Lee set up in his first film (and isn't it disingenious of them to position this one as not quite a sequel, not quite a remake?). One likes the simple gravity of the aforementioned Connelly, playing Betty; the homoerotic rage of the aforementioned Lucas, playing Talbot (you think he's beating up Banner because he wants the man's secret?); the beef-jerky gruffness and barely-checked fury ("What," you can imagine him roaring at Banner, "have you been doing with my daughter?!") of Sam Eliot's General "Thunderbolt" Ross (William Hurt in the role tries gamely to rough up his voice to an equivalent degree, but he mostly sounds like he's smoked too many cigarettes--you can't fake Eliot's kind of machismo).
And, above and beyond all that, one has to get on one knee and bow one's head in reluctant awe at the portrait of utter evil Nick Nolte manages to create out of his role as David Banner, Bruce's father. Nolte (who more than Eliot sounds as if he'd swallowed a grizzly, and chased his meal down with a draught of crushed gravel) has been good in everything from Karel Reisz's Who'll Stop the Rain (1978) to Roger Spottiswoode's Under Fire (1983) to George Miller's Lorenzo's Oil (1992); he probably doesn't consider a role in a comic-book movie (and a huge boxoffice flop of a movie at that) to be a career highlight, but I do. His David Banner--fired by General Ross and sent to a mental hospital for years--is perhaps a psychotic, almost certainly a sociopath. He regards other people the way he does lab animals, as mere fodder for his ambitions (with the exception perhaps of General Ross, who earns his absolute hatred); his son he treats special, the way a molester treats his victim--with a horrific mixture of tenderness, contempt, and all-encompassing hunger. David is the real monster of the picture, and an uncomfortably persuasive one; nothing in the second movie comes even close.
I'm not the biggest fan in the world of Ang Lee; I think he's far too tasteful and conscientious a filmmaker--but he is a filmmaker, with a distinct auteurial voice. At times his reach exceeds his ability--in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), he failed to capture the exuberance and energy of true wuxia pian; in Brokeback Mountain he creates a soggily sentimental drama about The Love That Dares Not Speak Its Name. In his foray into the worlds of both kung fu and gay melodrama he basically caters to the tourist's sensibility--appreciative, sensitive, but with all the rough, more disturbing edges filed smooth, lest they draw blood.
Not so with Hulk. If all his dramas from Sense and Sensibility (1996) down to Brokeback betray a literariness that puts a premium on the spoken or written word above the filmed image, his Hulk sports a real look not found anywhere else. Lee in this film (and in no other) plays with the frame, treating it like a comic-book frame (specifically a Jack Kirby comic-book frame) with insets that traveled across the screen like a floating playing card, or a tree trunk wiping one scene out to make way for the next, or split screens that either show different angles of the action, or several actions happening simultaneously, or the same action at differing stages, sometimes from differing angles. Lee's Hulk is a dynamic, exciting-looking film to watch, literally a comic book come to life; Lee in this film is more of a director, more of a filmmaker, than he has ever been at any time in his career.
So--watch the new Hulk? Go ahead, but afterwards be sure to try out the vastly superior earlier version, possibly the best work Ang Lee has ever done.
(First published in Businessworld, 6.13.08)