Fitting for a movie about a man at war with his powerful and contradictory impulses, Ang Lee's The Hulk simultaneously embraces its pulp roots and apologizes for them, sweating out a balance between theme and spectacle, large-scale destruction and intimate self-examination. Not since M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable has the superhero been so solemnly deconstructed, with heady references to King Kong and Frankenstein further loaded down by dense bits of philosophy and pointed antiwar sentiment. Lee and screenwriter James Schamus—who recently graduated from their more austere collaborations, such as The Ice Storm and Eat Drink Man Woman, to the rousing martial-arts epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—may not have been the safest choice to wrangle a beast of this scale. At times, their overarching ambition seems harder to contain than the Hulk himself, especially when they ruminate endlessly on a backstory riddled with repressed memories, Oedipal conflicts, and other touchy-feely psychology. Yet out of this thick primordial soup, Lee finds a strong foundation for his fluid and innovative comic-book style, which brilliantly imitates the panel-by-panel form with splashy zooms, wipes, split-screens, and paintbox effects. Unknown outside Australia save for his galvanizing turn in the 2000 psychodrama Chopper, Eric Bana brings brooding intensity and a compact frame to the Jekyll/Hyde hero. The gifted son of a rogue government scientist (Nick Nolte), Bana fulfills an awful destiny when his experiments with gamma radiation ignite a genetic mutation passed along by his monomaniacal father in the mid-'60s. His roiling temper triggers his transformation into the less-than-jolly green giant, unleashing a destructive rampage that only Jennifer Connelly, his lab partner and erstwhile lover, can quell. When the military catches wind of the situation, Connelly's high-ranking father (and Nolte's former superior) Sam Elliott tries to stop him, but an opportunistic arms corporation seeks to harness his powers for nefarious ends. Lee and Schamus labor mightily to give their characters dimension and dramatic weight, but The Hulk doesn't come to life until the action sequences, which spark the wit and visual dynamism that lays dormant for long stretches. Beneath the creature's petulant rage, the film smuggles a potent response to the ongoing war on terrorism: The more U.S. firepower is thrown in its direction, the bigger and angrier the threat becomes. Infinitely more ambitious and purposeful than the average summer movie, though not as ruthlessly streamlined, The Hulk takes the form of a wounded behemoth, battling to negotiate a compromise between a strong artistic vision and franchise expectations. It doesn't fully succeed on either count, but its integrity and substance stand out like an oasis in a field of cotton candy.
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