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Ang Lee's comic-book adaptation The Hulk takes toxic families literally. Bruce Banner is a latent genetic freak thanks to his obsessive scientist dad's illicit experiments on himself. As an adult, Bruce suffers a radioactive mishap that turns him into a green-skinned superhuman creature powered by pure rage -- the sort of person who'd be handy in traffic jams, or at dinner parties where the guests have overstayed their welcome.


Though he's a simple, nonverbal fellow, the Hulk is a good 12 feet tall, able to hammer-toss tanks and leap a couple of miles in a single bound. But inside, Lee points out, there's a small boy with a repressed memory of something bad Dad did to Mom. Bruce (Eric Bana) was raised a foster kid and is unwittingly tracing Dad's scientist footsteps when the return of crazy old Pop Banner (Nick Nolte) presages his first temporary transformation.


The ensuing Oedipal bonfire can seemingly be snuffed only by a particularly ballistic kind of family therapy. The Hulk is ripe with distant yet overbearing fathers: Along with Nolte's David Banner, there's Gen. Ross (Sam Elliot), whose daughter Betty (Jennifer Connelly) is in love with Bruce (and looks rather like his mother). And just as father created son, it's the two dads' bile and selfishness that fuels the story. "Angry Man is unsecure," says Ross, using the code name for the escaped monster he'd like to blast to pieces. The film's landscape of foreboding is the sun-blanched desert military base where Bruce's memory was repressed, and where he returns as a prisoner; his safe places, like his alter ego's skin, are nice and green, including Betty's Northern California log cabin surrounded by sequoias behind which one might reasonably expect to find a Robert Bly drum circle.


Lee, coming off the arthouse kung-fu smash Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, constructs several effective action sequences, with the digitally rendered Hulk battling three giant, mutated dogs (including, puckishly, a demonic poodle) and dodging ordnance among picturesque desert rock formations. When the Hulk tumbles, after a monster leap, into a sand dune, or barebacks a fighter jet into outer space, the images even achieve a kind of beauty. Meanwhile, Lee's constant use of split screens and collaged images, whose prevalence here is perhaps unprecedented in a mainstream film, has visual kick but sometimes makes you wonder whether he simply couldn't think of a single image strong enough to hold the screen.


Though what it ultimately begets is an overheated daddy-done-me-wrong story, Lee's ambition to make a comic-book movie with emotional power is admirable. Occasionally it's poignant too: Bruce's first Hulkish acts are smashing his own lab and house, a potent summary of self-loathing (especially since he enjoys the freedom of going green). But Nolte's character is too plainly and wholly mad (as in nuts) to really get under our skin, and so Bana's tortured intensity doesn't have enough to work against, and The Hulk melts into action comic as shrink session. When Betty lectures Dad Banner about the damage he's done Bruce, Connelly's green eyes are so stunning you want to buy it. But you can't: Whereas that other superhero movie about fathers, Spider-Man, had a pop simplicity that resonated, The Hulk's baroque seriousness merely pounds. AAb (2 and 1/2 projectors)

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