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Hulk (2003)

by Steve Habrat

One of the most polarizing films in the Marvel Studios line of films is Ang Lee’s 2003 splashy origin tale Hulk, which shows us the unfortunate accident that turns mild mannered Bruce Banner into the smashing and thrashing Hulk. The film has seemed to divide audiences and critics over the years—some standing by Lee’s psychological evaluation of the pain the Bruce bottles up inside and some practically retching at the mere mention of the film. I stand firm in the above average crowd. Personally, I’m a fan of the aesthetic that Lee applies to the jolly green giant’s first cinematic outing and I do enjoy some of the camp that he lays on oh so thick. Hulk does come with several flaws that do hold the film back, mostly the poorly executed action sequences and some of the brooding character development that takes place during the sagging middle of the film. Much of the grim stuff could have been left on the cutting room floor.  Yet when Hulk is firing on all cylinders, it is really, really good and it is hugely innovative.

Hulk tells the tale of genetics researcher Bruce Banner (Played by Eric Bana), who nurses a tragic past. Banner is working with nanomeds and gamma radiation to discover a cure for cancer and multiple other diseases. He works close to his main squeeze, the pretty Betty Ross (Played by Jennifer Connelly), who is the daughter of scheming General Ross (Played by Sam Elliot). When Bruce was young, General Ross and Bruce’s father David (Played by Nick Nolte) had a feud that caused David to be put in prison for many years. After an unfortunate accident, Bruce is exposed to gamma radiation but he miraculously survives. At first, Bruce feels better than ever but he quickly discovers that when he gets angry, he transforms into a destructive monster that lays waste to anything in its path. Fearing for the life of his daughter, General Ross demands that Bruce be taken into custody by the army before he can hurt anyone. To make matters worse, Bruce’s father returns to continue the work that he was torn away from all those years ago and undergoes a dangerous transformation of his own.

The best part of Lee’s Hulk is without question the comic book panel aesthetic that he uses to sculpt the film. It makes Hulk a constant visual treat—like we have cracked open the pages of a long lost Hulk comic book and the pages suddenly sprang to life.  Lee’s film could be considered one of the first superhero films that tried to mimic the pages of it’s source, opening the door for films like Sin City, 300, etc. Hulk is one big cartoon, drenched in vibrant colors and action that would seem more at home on the pages of a comic than on a movie screen. Yet it is this very action that causes Hulk to hit a wall. When Lee throws an action sequence at us, he can’t quite keep Hulk contained and on track. These scenes, which are mostly the Hulk versus Hulk-dogs showdown and the final confrontation between Hulk and David Banner swirls into incoherency that completely removes us from the fun.

While Hulk is a visual treat, the subject matter veers into heavy territory that the comic book genre wasn’t particularly used to at the time. Lee doesn’t hesitate to give us multiple glimpses into Banner’s heavy heart and he marries the bottle up demons within Banner with his transformation into the Hulk. His pain and anguish is literally explosive. Lee drags Hulk out to two hours and twenty minutes with breathlessly explaining every psychological aspect of Banner’s inner turmoil. Lee uses Betty as the Banner’s psychologist, someone who stands back and baits Banner into decoding hazy memories from his past. This would be all okay except that Lee begins to repeat himself and he never really attempts to break the film up. He does finally lighten the mood with an extended battle between the Hulk and endless waves off army tanks, helicopters, and waves of soldiers.

Hulk does feature some first-rate performances from its colorful cast, mainly from Nolte as the mysterious David Banner. Nolte, looking as scruffy as ever, is a tortured soul much like Bruce, one who buries secrets within and then explodes into a force of nature. It’s a shame that Lee forgets about his character half way through the film and then suddenly remembers that he has to work him in and give him something to do with his sinister new powers. Connelly is given the routine superhero’s girlfriend job of putting herself in harm’s way but her interactions with Bruce are at times touching. She does everything she can to rise above her clichéd role and often does. Bana does a bang up job of playing the brooding nerd and I have to say I really enjoyed him. He does really send a chill when his face begins to bubble and he sputters out with, “You’re making me angry!” Sam Elliot as General Ross is an egotistical man who torments Banner every chance he gets. He’s the true villain here even if he is planted behind computer screens and shouts orders to never-ending troops of soldiers.

With fairly memorable performances and lots of visual bells and whistles, Hulk musters up several nifty moments throughout its lengthy runtime to really make it a winner. I personally enjoy the cartoonish special effects here and I think they have held up quite well over the years. I enjoy the hell out of the Hulk’s showdown with the army near the end of the film and I personally think it is the highlight moment. Just wait until the Hulk bites the tip of a missile off and spits it at a helicopter. Yet I don’t think a character like the Hulk truly needs such an emotionally complex origin tale for a hero who is basically a green wrecking ball. Furthermore, I really don’t think that Lee needed to drag it out as long as he does, as more than once I checked the time while I was re-watching it. What I want out of a Hulk movie is lots of smashing, destruction, and mayhem with a tiny bit of romance thrown in. I commend Lee and Hulk for trying to add some depth to the superhero genre and for that, I say Hulk is pretty darn good. It’s a risky experiment of imagination and Lee, God bless him, almost pulls it off.

Grade: B

Hulk is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Warrior (2011)

by Steve Habrat

If you waved off Warrior, the Mixed Martial Arts drama that snuck out last fall, do yourself a favor and see it before all the UFC fans discover it and ruin it. Clichéd but rousing, Warrior is a vehicle for strong performances and easy dramatics. The whole UFC craze has baffled me and, quite honestly, annoyed me due to the obnoxious bros who worship before it. The beauty of Warrior is that it takes MMA seriously and it is never intolerable. In fact, it lays waste to the obnoxious fighters who dare tangle with Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton with fury to spare! Warrior takes things a step further and gives the Conlon brothers, who act as the wounded heart and soul of this picture, real reasons to dish out punches. They are never doing this to simply stroke their masculine egos like so many of the MMA competitors do.

Warrior follows Marine Tommy Conlon (Played by Hardy), who returns home from a tour of duty in Iraq with a heavy heart. He joins a local gym where he jumps into the ring with MMA fighter Pete “Mad Dog” Grimes and knocks him out with one punch. Tommy’s brother Brendan (Played by Edgerton) is living a seemingly stable and happy life with a beautiful wife and two daughters. It turns out that Brendan, who is mild-mannered physics teacher, is on the verge of losing his home and moonlighting as a small time MMA fighter. Both Tommy and Brendan learn of “Sparta”, a MMA tournament that offers a $5,000,000 reward to the winner. Tommy, who decides to compete in “Sparta” to help out his deceased best friend’s widow, enlists the help of his alcoholic father Paddy Conlon (Played by Nick Nolte), who use to train him for wrestling when he was younger. Brendan also begins training so he can use the money to keep his home and family together. Paddy uses the opportunity to attempt to reconnect with his sons, who both have fractured relationships with him.

I’ve always thought that the MMA and the UFC craze was troublesome because it eggs on individuals who are desperate to prove how masculine and tough they are to everyone else. You’ve seen the fans at your local bar on a Saturday night decked out in their Tapout t-shirts, downing Jager bombs, and on the prowl for a fight. They are convinced they are just as tough as the fighters they see on television and just as egotistical too. Granted, I am not saying everyone who watches UFC is influenced by it, but sadly, there will always be those who feel they must express their masculinity by emulating the beat downs they see on television. Warrior is none of these things, making the barbaric “sport” seemed disciplined with hints of honor. These men are not only fighting muscle heads but they are constantly grappling with their inner demons. It helps that Hardy, Edgerton, and Nolte all bring the A-game to the table.

Hardy’s Tommy is a haunted pill popper who isn’t craving fame or recognition. He is making good on a promise and he will fight like hell to deliver. He wants none of the glitz or glamour. Edgerton’s underdog Brendan is a family man who was dealt a handful of unfair blows by life. He will fight like hell to keep his family together even if that means taking severe beatings. Nolte’s Paddy is grappling with the demons of his past, trying to reconcile with his sons who want none of his pleas for forgiveness. He’s a recovering alcoholic who is on the verge of slipping back into the bottles grip. The three come together to make Warrior a film that isn’t afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve, something I don’t think is common when it comes to UFC culture.

Director Gavin O’Connor seemed to understand his film was a tough sell to viewers who are not swept up by meatheads trying to pin each other into an armbar. He makes a fragile drama that thrills when the fights take center stage but knocks us sideways when the emotions pour out. There is a scene where Paddy shows up to Brendan’s home that will puts your heart in an armbar. You want to tap out of the scene due to how agonizingly heartbreaking it truly is. Another blow-up occurs in a casino between Tommy and Paddy, Tommy unleashing his anger towards Paddy with absolutely no mercy. Warrior swipes the shaky camerawork and weary atmosphere from countless other boxing films (mainly The Fighter and Rocky), even taking place in Pennsylvania like the Stallone classic.

Warrior turns out to be a permutation of sports movie staples. It has an underdog story, family drama, and ends with a monumental showdown. O’Connor takes his good old time and builds the suspense of the fights quite nicely. One problem I had with Warrior was a last act twist with Hardy’s character that seemed crammed in at the last minute to add another layer of conflict but it ends up amounting to absolutely nothing. If you don’t give Warrior a chance over the subject matter, it’s worth it for film fans to take in Nolte’s portrayal of a man trying to make up for the mistakes he has made in life. Warrior turns out to be an accessible and memorable sports film that doesn’t attempt to reconfigure the sports film structure. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Instead, it is content with embracing all the qualities that make up the genre and delivering an end result that is enduring and uplifting.

Grade: A-

Warrior is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.