Mr. Green Genes 

“The Hulk” dazzles and entertains, but might leave some wistfully wishing for Ferrigno.

Actually, the apparently limitless imagination of two Lees drives this action-packed, visual treat. Created in 1962 by Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, the Hulk character finds new life in Ang Lee and longtime collaborator James Schamus’ big-screen adaptation. If anything, the high-tech edge employed by Lee strengthens the hulking character’s inner struggle as a man unwittingly transformed into a monster. There is a dark richness to the tale, tapping the literary bloodline shared with the tormented heroes penned by the likes of Robert Lewis Stevenson, H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley and James Whale.

Throughout “The Hulk,” Lee walks a fine line, balancing the “Kapow!” spectacle of comic-book graphics with the gee-whiz wizardry of computer-generated imagery and movie-editing magic. Wipes, split screens, zip pans and other optical tricks effectively replicate onscreen the feeling of reading a comic book’s panels. In a breathtaking title sequence, we watch a lone-wolf scientist experiment in genetic modification. Though he fails time and time again, he doesn’t give up. But then the consequences of his research literally hit home: His wife delivers a baby that carries the mutated genetic devil’s brew he conjured up. His boss, a military commander, tosses the scientist out of his lab, but he sabotages it before rushing home to “fix” his son.

Years later, that son is scientist Bruce Banner (Australian actor Eric Bana), who unknowingly follows in his father’s footsteps as a researcher in genetic technology. A bundle of repressed memories and triggers, Bruce is emotionally cut off, and this undermines his relationship with girlfriend and fellow researcher, Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly). When their lab experiments attract the unwanted attention of Betty’s estranged father, Gen. Ross (Sam Elliott), and rival researcher Glenn Talbot (Josh Lucas), the mysterious new night janitor, David (Nick Nolte), begins lurking around the lab. We soon learn that David is no mere janitor — he’s really Bruce’s father, recently released from prison.

The sins of the father now start to be visited upon the son with dizzying speed, culminating in a lab accident that exposes Bruce to what should be a fatal dose of gamma radiation. But his dad’s mutating gene not only allows Bruce to withstand the gammas, the combination serves to kickstart the “monster” within him.

Now, whenever Bruce is severely angered, his scrambled DNA turns him into the Hulk. Unlike the old CBS series, “The Incredible Hulk” (1977-’82), in which Bill Bixby’s Bruce stepped off-camera in favor of bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno’s Hulk, here Bruce’s alter ego (or rather his alter id) is a massive green computer-generated creature that withstands missile attacks, leaps high into the sky and shakes up the entire U.S. military.

This is where most fans of the comic book as well as the TV series will encounter difficulty — they’ll find it hard to invest emotionally in this obviously “unreal” Hulk. And while I, too, had some early moments of misgivings, they faded quickly thanks to Lee’s no-holds-barred approach to the “spectacle” of the character and his combatants, both external and internal. The climactic sequence when the Hulk escapes a desert lab and rampages all the way to San Francisco is nothing short of awesome. But I would be remiss were I not to add that more than once since the screening I have found myself feeling the loss of Lou.

Bana adequately conveys the inner turmoil of a man at odds with his essence. Connelly, too, gets torn in different directions, unable to trust any man in her life, from this normal guy who becomes a monster to her monstrous father. And Nolte delivers a new and interesting twist on the mad scientist. We sympathize with his drive for knowledge, even when that quest overrides the feelings, needs and concerns of loved ones.

Although its two-hour-plus running time seems daunting, the movie zips along at lghtning speed, leaving moviegoers dazzled and entertained.

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