Hulk

He's a big bloke, but out of shape
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In the Sixties, you could buy a Hulk T-shirt that carried the legend, "Here Comes the Incredible Hulk!" over a picture of the lumbering man-monster, a rope clutched in his meaty green fist. Turn it over and it read, "There Goes the Incredible Hulk!", while on the end of the rope was a little wooden bunny on wheels.

In keeping with this vision, Ang Lee's Hulk reveals the Marvel Comics anti-hero to be nothing more or less than a big tantrum-prone baby: the film's computer-generated colossus resembles an oddly-shaped infant, romping along in ragged shorts. Indeed, in a flashback to the childhood of tortured scientist Bruce Banner, we see the future Hulk in his cradle, screaming with rage when his parents remove his dummy, and instantly developing greenish Roquefort veins when he's really piqued. Thank God we're spared his potty training.

In the Nineties, following Tim Burton's Batman, whenever people asked why a heavyweight director had made a film from a comic strip, it became fashionable to reply, "Yes, but this one's really dark." Since then, we've had our fill of dark superhero films and started hankering for something a little fluffier, more celebratory of comics' brighter pleasures - hence the success of Sam Raimi's cheerful, no-frills Spiderman. With as prestigious a director as Ang Lee in charge, no wonder Hulk was heralded as the most serious-minded superhero film yet - Variety even ran a cartoon of the green guy reading Camus. But despite being fairly crammed with subtext and earnest intentions, Hulk largely fails to engage either intellect or imagination.

Auteur theorists might wonder what makes Hulk specifically an Ang Lee film, and how it relates to previous work such as Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm. Apart from the fact that the Hulk is the same shade of green as the stir-fried broccoli in Eat Drink Man Woman, it's hard to detect a truly individual touch. Lee does, however, tend to be interested in family tensions, and his Hulk is largely a tale of Oedipal conflict. Its heavily signposted subtext is about feelings and their expression: Bruce (a gentle but stormily brooding Eric Bana) has failed in his relationship with colleague Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly), who laments that she's a slave to her "obsession with emotionally distant men". With dialogue steeped in such self-help psychobabble, the film seems to gesture towards a satire on the American obsession with emotional honesty.

Hulk is full of monstrous men who vent their inner rage at every opportunity: Banner's shaggy, rasping mad-scientist dad (Nick Nolte, at one point taking the expression "chewing the scenery" quite literally), Josh Lucas's corporate thug, and Betty's phallic tyrant of a father, General "Thunderbolt" Ross (an imposingly monolithic Sam Elliott), who seems to be a one-man embodiment of US military authority. The film might be read as a critique of American male excess from an Asian director who (stereotypically or otherwise) is commonly reputed to be a cerebral, Zen-inclined soul with a feel for the female.

Lee and cinematographer Frederick Elmes boldly turn these fulminating male faces into plastic-textured totems that fill the screen; they are the film's true monsters. But it is strange that an FX blockbuster should be most memorable for its close-ups. Attempting to evoke the speedy simultaneity of panels on the comic-book page, Lee and editor Tim Squyres overload the film with formal gimcrackery: split-screens, panels within panels, fancy wipes, images that spin round on cubes. Wildly distracting, it in no way resembles the actual experience of reading comics: Lee never demonstrates the instinctive feeling for the art form common to die-hard fanboys like Raimi and Burton.

As a CGI creation, the film's Hulk is rather less expressive than Shrek or furry Sully in Monsters, Inc., although (whether or not this is intentional), it's touching that his creaky rubber-jointed shamble makes him look more like a 3D stop-motion creature in the Ray Harryhausen tradition. There are moments of genuine euphoria in his bounding across a mountain range, and the film's one undisputed moment of beauty has him cascading gently down a huge sand dune.

What's really lacking is any sense of a unified narrative argument. The logic of the Hulk's transformation skips between Frankenstein (he is his father's unwitting creation), King Kong (teary-eyed, he detumesces back into human form when he sees Betty), and David Cronenberg's The Fly (Bruce confesses that when he becomes the Hulk, he likes it). Unfortunately, Lee and regular collaborator James Schamus - who shares script credit with John Turman and Michael France - not only fail to decide what mythic template to follow, they never get near unearthing the situation's true horror or pathos or perversity, whichever it is.

Ultimately, the film's strongest suit is one it shares with Spiderman - its star-crossed couple. Bana and Connelly are convincing as emotionally inarticulate adults, and Bana's tormented blandness serves the film well. It was a smart choice to cast this little-known actor as a reticent soul, given that he made his name playing a full-on headbanger in the Australian film Chopper, though it must be said that film's sociopathic protagonist far outdid the Hulk both for mercurial rage and for confused vulnerability.

Since you asked, the film's actual title is supposedly The Hulk, but the logo designers thought it looked better without the definite article. As for Bruce Banner's super-elastic trousers, they are a riddle that has perplexed generations, and they remain a riddle here.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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