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,
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).
"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 40 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.
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.
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You can also email Noel Vera at firstname.lastname@example.org
First published in Businessworld, 06.13.08.