Beasts of Burden


It’s not so easy being green—that much we know. Striving with science-nerd earnestness to be more than merely a summer box-office blast-surge, Ang Lee’s The Hulk regards its megalithic mutant icon with a kind of apocalyptic sensitivity. Gone are the caveman one-liners, desperate puns, and sitcom irony of the original ’60s Marvel comics (I remember a bygone issue of The Incredible Hulk in which the Great Green One wore an apron and did dishes). Instead, Hulk-itude is a solemn tribulation, and poor old Bruce Banner is the Job of post-nuclear bad science, military subjugation, and patriarchal abuse.

Which was the elemental thrust of the collective Marvel revelation: Sustaining a secret identity was often the least of a neurotic, self-hating superhero’s problems. The Hulk was, from the first, the most simplistic and most angst-ridden scenario, a Jekyll-Hyde struggle wrought quantum whose manifested id was pure, rampaging youth-fury (however desexualized), and the more society strenuously tried to control it, the more destructive it would become. It was an irresistible if one-note paradigm, and as drawn by Jack Kirby, it seemed to bust out of its panels by virtue of uncontrollable muscle bulk and pubertal spite.

For director Lee and writer-producer collaborator James Schamus, Banner’s stations of the cross begin and end with repressed memories—handily surfacing, or forced to surface by evil military researchers, as triggers for mega-transformation. Banner (Eric Bana, selected here less for Chopper-affect than for an almost airbrushed blandness) is so buttoned-down that luscious lab-mate Betty (Jennifer Connelly) has already dumped him, the two maintaining an affectionate, almost-was bond despite his inability to share emotionally. Even the cause of his Monster from the Id—no mere gamma bomb, but a combination of a lab accident, new “nanomeds,” and a genetic miswiring inherited from his self-experimenting father—is haunted with Oedipal angst. When the green scat hits the fan, there is no shortage of Herculean fury and demolished hardware on display, but most of the movie’s action scenes take place inside Banner’s beleaguered skull.

The upshot is sweetly melodramatic—at least, you inevitably note, there are nominal humans aboard. (Oscar winner Connelly has talking like a real person down.) For all of Hulk‘s attempted compassion, Lee devotes a great deal of energy to approximating comic-book layouts with flexible multi-paneled screens, jazzy wipes, and digital dissolves, and the effect, however smooth, makes you hanker for the oblique hysteria of Sam Raimi’s Darkman. The Hulk himself is all-digi as well, and he’s no Gollum—in terms of expressiveness and physical style, he evokes a seething Harryhausen gargantua, or Kong himself, with the vague semblance of Bana’s worried eyes. (Rest assured, his swath of obliteration claims very few lives, but a giant mutant poodle gets whumped.)

By far the most outrageous visual factor is Nick Nolte as Banner’s long-lost father. The writers have conjoined the comic’s original prick-Dad with Hulk villain the Absorbing Man, and epically disheveled in the manner of his notorious 2002 mug shot, Nolte raises the roof even before his irradiated flesh starts melding with the lab furniture. In the climactic hollering match and face-off, before the ending splooges out into an Akira-style abstraction, Nolte’s exploding patriarch jacks up the story’s antisocial wish fulfillment into a Nietzschean-anarchist’s wet dream, but one can only vainly hope that the preordained sequel will head in that dastardly direction.

The new, glossy Thai epic The Legend of Suriyothai has relatively little on its inner mind. A 16th-century saga of warring kingdoms and royal power struggles, Prince Chatri Chalerm Yukol’s movie is lovely, large, and tedious, subscribing blindly to storybook stereotypes (this warrior is brave, this prince is noble, this consort is evil) and acted, for the most part, in a passionless monotone. Yukol, an actual Thai prince, went to film school with executive producer Francis Ford Coppola, and has enlisted his lifelong friend to handle the film’s post-production, whittling down what was an eight-hour, and then a three-hour, film to 142 minutes. (Coppola shares editing credits, and the American Zoetrope staff gets the last quarter of the credit roll.)

Suriyothai is a Siamese queen kept to the story’s periphery for much of the time, as the country’s loosely aligned hierarchy of kings battles the invading Burmese forces and tries to keep their thrones. They can’t: There are more poisonings, usurpations, betrayals, assassinations, and plottings than in any five Shakespeare plays. Still, the money shots are usually slow processions of decorated elephants, interrupted every now and then for the occasional beheading. The yarn—at its best involving an ambitious concubine to whom nobody is unwhackable—unfolds briskly enough, but for all the hubbub there’s little dramatic fire. One dampening problem is the sizable amount of crucial incident that happens offscreen (we’re told about too many deaths and invasions by messenger). Another is the childish, albeit princely, instinct to celebrate and mythologize the oppressive culture of blood lineage, a mistake the Fifth-Gen Chinese filmmakers never made in their excursions into the past. When Suriyothai is ready to make her out-of-nowhere final sacrifice (to save her husband, whom the people need more than she), the sense is that because she’s a royal, she’s up to it.

Fortunately, it’s tough to j’accuse Rugrats Go Wild, in which the malapropism-spewing toddlers go on a family vacation run amok (the first 20 minutes quotes from dozens of parent-familiar movies, from The Poseidon Adventure to Planet of the Apes) and end up shipwrecked on the same island as the wildlife-documenting Wild Thornberrys. As matinee probations go, the movie’s tainted by too many bad songs and too much of Bruce Willis, who provides the inappropriately smug voice for the Rugrats’ befuddled dog, Spike, who can talk now because Eliza Thornberry can hear him. Having 20 confined characters to utilize in less than 90 minutes leaves Eliza and Tommy Pickles, for two, shortchanged. Kids may not pay attention to the restoration of John Waters’s old Odorama gag—with your ticket, you get scratch ‘n’ sniff cards faintly reeking of root beer, peanut butter, and fish. Otherwise, this third outing hits its moment of painful maturation with diaper hedonist Phil, bidding adieu to his addiction to gobbling insects: “If I’d a known the last bug I eats was gonna be the last bug I eats . . . I woulda eats it slower.”