Is there any human besides Ang Lee who could so adroitly direct such disparate films as Sense and Sensibility, Ride With the Devil, The Ice Storm and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? All of Lee's recent work suggests people of a certain time and place -- another world, for sure. So while his first stab at a comic-book feature, Hulk, might be set in the here and now, it's certainly in another world.
And despite its many virtues -- specifically the two sides of the title character's coin, Bruce Banner and his alter-ego Hulk -- Lee actually seems trapped by two worlds. We all knew going in he wasn't going to do a paint-by-numbers action movie; as one of the few Hollywood directors who actually pays attention to character arc, Lee's too concerned about human emotions to mail this in. Here, he wants to have it both ways, poignantly exploring the inner rage that dwells within The Incredible Hulk (popularized in both the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby comic and the TV series) while also trying to deliver the goods. If he falls just short of the mark, it's not for lack of trying.
Or casting. He nailed the Bruce Banner choice with Australia's Eric Bana, who essentially played the same character in the marvelous bio-pic Chopper, about an incredulous Aussie gangster who also was impervious to pain and in need of serious anger management. Bana captures all of Bruce Banner's insecurities, a man who unwittingly has fallen into the family tradition of mad science and who doesn't understand the rage within that prohibits emotional intimacy with his girlfriend Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly).
Lee also does right by Banner's counterpart with a Marvelous CGI version of the Hulk -- not quite realistic, not quite comic-bookish -- and his economical use of action sequences in the first two acts sets up fascinating third-act fun.
If only Lee had been so economical with the subplots and pacing, he would've had a dazzler here. Connelly is a surprising bore, Nick Nolte munches on too much scenery as Banner's long-lost father, and Sam Elliott is given way too much screen time as Ross' general father. Still, Hulk is a comic-book movie with a heart and a brain.
Bruce Banner (Eric Bana, right) tries to explain the beast within to girlfriend Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly) in Ang Lee's Hulk.