A wiser person than myself once said: "It's not easy being green". Too true, my friends, too true. This interpretation of the famous "Hulk" character really wants to be an epic emotional experience with a Greek-tragedy bent. But in all reality, Ang Lee was not hired to make amends with one's "Inner Hulk", but to turn the big green guy into plenty of green for Universal Studios. So working on a project like this seems to be a kind of tug-of-war for Lee: which direction should he steer the film in?
In a montage near the beginning of the film, we learn of David Banner (played by Paul Kersey for the character's younger years; portrayed later in the film by Nick Nolte), working for a military complex somewhere in the southwestern desert. He is working to create some form of strength hormone that could make soldiers nearly invincible. Some stunt he pulls makes the military pull his funding, leaving him to his own devices: he begins to test on his own son, Bruce.
Many years later, Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) does not know (or more, can't remember) his past; not who his father is, what happened to his mother; nothing. However, he has abandoned his past and begun to work on the future: he works in a lab trying to perfect (oh, the irony) a strength hormone but fails every time. His partner, Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly) is behind him all the way, but a fellow scientist and ex-boyfriend of Ross', Talbot (Josh Lucas) is accosting Banner to try and get him to work on the project for a larger company with a little more money. Bruce always declines.
But after a small accident in the lab that leaves Bruce hospitalized, strange things begin to happen. He starts to get strange visits from the hospital janitor (played by Nick Nolte... ghasp, could it be?), starts having strange visions of his past, and oh, yeah; when he gets pissed off he turns into a giant green monster that smashes everything around him indiscriminately: humans, animals, movie studio executives, whatever. No biggie. But now the military starts to get interested: they send in Betsy Ross' father (Sam Elliott) to try and get this hulk of a monster (hah, get it?) into their military labs.
Lee and his longtime screenwriting partner, James Schamus, set themselves up well enough. This really isn't a superhero movie. Your mother really won't approve of the Hulk as a superhero, seeing as all he really does is screw up everyone's weekend plans, ruin all of his nice clothes and drool on the furniture. We wouldn't want that, would we? This is more like the ultimate villain's movie. Lee and Schamus had the right idea by making Bruce Banner a modern age Jekyll and Hyde story. The acting was fine (Nick Nolte creates a memorable villain) and the screenplay is competent, so what went wrong?
Well, most of the problem lies in the fact that Lee doesn't really know what kind of a movie he's making. Yes, the screenplay should've mapped out the whole thing pretty clearly, but that's not what shows up onscreen. For every time the film gets good and somber and starts to get to the heart of what it's saying, Lee inexplicably turns the film 180 degrees around. It becomes no longer a film based on a comic book; but a comic book of a movie. It seems that every half-second in a simple scene whose power should come from dialogue, Lee turns to split screen, double-takes, or editing tricks that would tick off even music video directors. In the action scenes (with the exception of one exquisitely choreographed desert chase), everything becomes so accentuated with freeze-frames or bursts of color that you can practically see a big, bubbly "Kablooey!" bursting off of the screen. For example, one scene involves a genetically mutated poodle.
A flesh-eating, ten-foot-tall poodle.
Now come on; Ang, what kind of a tone are you going for? Scenes like this aren't really a problem in a self-reverential, lighter action film ("Spider Man" or "Pirates of the Carribean" are good examples). But when the story has the potential to be so powerful, why sell out? It's enough to drive a viewer up the wall. If you want to see the kind of thing Lee was going for, try the original "King Kong", or more recently, the cerebral psychological electricity between Elijah Wood and Andy Serkis in "The Two Towers". But unfortunately, (to put it simply), this "Hulk" don't smash.