Anger management in doomed attempt to humanise a debased genre

That's just Hulk, by the way, not The Hulk, or even The Incredible Hulk, the TV spin-off in which Lou Ferrigno wore green body paint and a wig apparently modelled on a caveman ancestor of Jimmy Saville. That Hollywood has given this not-so-Jolly Green Giant an event-movie makeover isn't a surprise - it seems to be the fate of every character who's passed through a Marvel comic - but who didn't raise an eyebrow at the news that Ang Lee was to direct it? Yes, he's done action movies before, most strikingly Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but the action there was distinguished by grace rather than grit. If it's big-budget scenery-trashing kerrang! you want then surely your first port of call is Jerry Bruckheimer.

Not this time. The strange thing about the opening sections of this movie is how everyone speaks at a normal volume; there's nothing punched-up or italicised in the dialogue, even if Danny Elfman's score keens in the direction of melodrama. The cinematographer, Frederick Elmes, who shot Blue Velvet and The Ice Storm, finds something characteristically ominous in the flashback scenes to a Sixties nuclear test site in the desert, where mad scientist David Banner has passed on his mangled genes to Bruce, his infant son.

A traumatic event, dimly recalled, haunts the dreams of the adult Bruce (Eric Bana), himself now a scientist researching cellular regeneration. He's a self-contained, brooding fellow, and loved by his colleague Betty, played by Jennifer Connelly, who seems to have a weakness for this type - in A Beautiful Mind she also fell for a boffin with a volatile temperament.

The difference being, when Russell Crowe went nuts he didn't turn into a roaring, pneumatically muscled giant with the instincts of a bouncer. This is the creature Banner becomes after receiving a blast of gamma radiation, and it sets him apart from other Marvel superheroes insofar as his powers aren't "heroic" at all. They're not designed to pursue justice, or protect the weak; they're simply a loud, antisocial expression of rage. Movie references start rippling outwards. The terror of metamorphosis inevitably brings to mind Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde. When the Hulk gently scoops up Betty in his hands, you're reminded of Fay Wray in the clutches of King Kong. He gazes at his reflection in a pool and it's Karloff's Frankenstein. Finally, when we see him crash through walls and then start pogo-ing from one mountain peak to another, you think of... any other daft cartoon movie.

This isn't to say that the challenge of pulp is beyond Ang Lee. He translates the conventions of the comic-book very niftily into film language, using split-screens, wipes, superimpositions and crash-zooms to convey their pace and economy. Even when the Hulk is being hunted down by the US military - he's a bit easier to spot than Saddam - Lee is alert to the possibility of wit; as the creature whirls around the gun turret of an immobilised tank, you may just be reminded of a young Pete Townshend on stage, smashing his guitar against the startled amps. And I liked the way he bites the end off a missile as if it were a cigar and spits it back at the chopper that fired it. All the same, this is stuff from the effects lab, not what we watch an Ang Lee movie for.

The attempt by Lee's screenwriters (John Turman, Michael France, James Schamus) to put a spin on the Hulk's psychopathology doesn't work either. When the monster calms down and returns to being Bruce, he confesses to Betty, "The worst thing of all is... when I lose control... I like it." But could anyone that angry actually notice that he's having a good time? (I discount Russell Crowe here.) One look at Eric Bana's spooked features suggests anything but "liking" it. Bana conveyed the relish of mayhem far more convincingly in his portrayal of the Australian career criminal Mark "Chopper" Read, a walking wanted poster whose tattoos looked like offensive weapons.

So what's it all about, Alfie? There's a topical warning about the dangers of dabbling with the DNA, and about the misuse of scientific research (a slimy entrepreneur wants to clone the Hulk and create an indestructible breed of soldiery). In the end, though, it comes down to a struggle between parents and children. Betty is under the thumb of her father, a steel-bollocked general (Sam Elliott) who hounds the Hulk. And it's Bruce's unhappy fate to learn that the wild-haired janitor who works at his lab is actually his long-lost dad, returned to discover the extent of his genetic meddling all those years ago. That he's played by Nick Nolte in solemn-scarecrow mode only compounds the horror. Usually the appearance of Nolte would be a cause for cheer, but here he's a rambling, incomprehensible bore, and his late showdown with Bana more or less derails the picture.

So, blame the parents. The Hulk as Oedipal wreck: can they spin it out to a sequel? If Nolte doesn't disintegrate completely, anything's possible. This movie has its moments, one or two funky sight gags, and the potent allure of Connelly and her infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering gaze. (If she ever smiled, would her spell be broken?) It's a decent but doomed attempt to humanise a debased genre, probably too subtle for teenagers, and not subtle enough for adults. If Lee wanted to do Michael Bay and the Bruckheimer cigar-chompers out of a living, he could, but he must know there are better ways to "think big".