About a month-and-a-half ago, I broke a filling in one of my upper molars. My tooth doesn’t ache, but there are days I have a devil of a time keeping my tongue away from it. There’s this little pointy corner that I can’t keep from prodding, particularly when my attention’s wandering. I mention this because I went to see The Hulk at the movie theater yesterday.
And, boy, is my tongue sore.
I really really wanted to be whisked away by this flick. Of all the year’s superhero extravaganzas, it was the one I was most anticipating due to Ang Lee’s involvement. I wasn’t just coming to the director from Crouching Tiger, I was also recalling his adaptation of The Ice Storm, which utilized another Marvel Comics series, Fantastic Four, as an intelligent and non-condescending metaphor. Surely, Lee and regular scriptwriter/collaborator James Schamus would be able to do something cool with the character.
Boy, you can sure see ’em working hard, maybe too hard. But watching The Hulk, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I was seeing a big budget version of a 50’s drive-in flick with pretensions: one of those old-style horror s-f movies where you wait and wait and wait for the monster to appear, while you’re subjected to endless scenes of experiments in the lab and awkward romantic interludes ‘tween the doomed hero and his gal. In a way this is apt: the early Stan Lee & Jack Kirby Incredible Hulk comics were very much influenced by horror s-f pics by yeoman directors like Jack (Creature from the Black Lagoon, Monster on the Campus) Arnold and schlockmeisters like Bert (Amazing Colossal Man) Gordon. But it’s also somewhat disappointing.
Make no mistake. I enjoy a good How-to-Make-A-Monster pic as much as the next big kid. But watching an A-Lister like Lee struggle with keeping our attention through torturous subplots via look-at-me! editing and visual flourishes out of a 30’s urban psychological drama, I started thinking (all the while a-pokin’ that tooth) of Ken Russell’s Altered States, yet another When-the-Hell-We-Gonna-See-the-Monster pic tricked out with trippy visuals and exposition-heavy dialog.
Where the movie makes its biggest revisionist moves is in our hero’s origin and the addition of a new character: Bruce’s father David (too bad Bill Bixby’s dead – wouldn’t it have been cool to see him in this role?), played by a seedy looking Nick Nolte. Bad Daddy David set the seeds of our hero’s transformation by experimenting on himself back in the 60’s (hey, it was an era for experimentation!) so that when Bruce was born, he already had a genetic predisposition toward Hulkishness. The lab accident – involving gamma rays and something called nanomeds – helps trigger what already was latent within our hero: an awfully convoluted explanation for an origin most of us mentally skip over, anyway. Feels like the kind of revisionist take some 3rd or 4th generation comics writer would concoct in a doomed attempt to repair three decades of continuity errors.
Nolte’s something to see, though: muttering and ranting, he’s a marked contrast to all the stiff-uppper-lippers who comprise the rest of the cast. You kind of get the sense the guy wandered onto the set from his last Sundance entry acting assignment – and didn’t even bother to change his clothes. Too bad his lines are so dull.
When the monster finally shows, it’s none too soon. Dennis Muran’s CQI creation seems to go out of its way to look like it’s not computer generated: at times, the Hulk has the herky-jerky movement of old stop motion animation. First big fight the green giant has is even framed like Willis O’Brian’s King Kong. Set in a forest of towering trees, the fifteen-foot Hulk battles a trio of vicious mutant hounds (including – yeah, I know the breed is smart and can be a good hunter but still – a big poodle!) I totally forgot my tooth during that sequence.
The climactic extended chase through desert, city and ultimate battle with a movie version of the old Marvel villain Absorbing Man is plenty fun, too. One of the great bits that they’ve resurrected from the comics is the Hulk’s ability to travel great distances by leaping really high (and, no, he doesn’t balance deftly on the upper branches of trees!) Watching the creature bound from desert rock into desert canyon – or swing one tank against another, I was happily thinking this is what Jack Kirby saw when he was first visualizing this book. In those moments, I was almost totally willing to forgive the movie the time it took to get to ’em. Perhaps I even would’ve forgotten the movie’s first half if I didn’t have this damn scraped tongue.
The Hulk‘s not the worst of the new superhero movies: every once in a while Lee’s pure visual sense enlivens even the drabbest set-up moments (he gets a lot of good foreboding imagery out of his desert setting, for instance) and, unlike Daredevil, you pretty much can figure out what going on in the action sequences (one big exception: an underwater fight between Hulk and a CGI Nolte). If it’s not the unmitigated disaster some fans were predicting based on its rough cut Super Bowl tv promo, it’s not the sublime art-‘n’-genre blend that many of us were hoping for either. Years from now, I bet movie historians’ll look at it as an interesting blip on the director’s career.
Got an appointment to get my tooth refilled next week. Perhaps I’ll be more tolerant when League of Extraordinary Gentlemen debuts. . . Powered by Sidelines