Grade: B

One has to admire Ang Lee’s versatility. The director’s output has varied from a trio of charming Taiwanese-American domestic comedy-dramas to a lovely Jane Austen adaptation, a biting study of upper-class New England family life, a Civil War actioner and what many see as the summation of the martial-arts epic. But this adaptation of the Marvel Comics character is certainly his biggest challenge yet. The mean, green, not-at-all lean Hulk is hardly one of comicdom’s premier creations, and he/it was rendered pretty much ridiculous in the far-from-incredible live-action TV series of 1978-1982 and its quite awful animated descendants. But even in its pristine form the Hulk fable, as Stan Lee contrived it, was never much more than a space-age reworking of the Jekyll-and-Hyde story, in which the kindly doctor was scientist Bruce Banner and his alter-ego (or more properly his rampaging unleashed Id, to use the proper Freudian terminology) was a nasty version of the not-so-jolly Green Giant–or, if you prefer, a King Kong with green skin. How could such stuff be translated into a big mainstream summer movie?

Lee’s answer, as it turns out, is to play the story almost entirely straight (a few lines apart), as a serious drama with tragic overtones of almost Shakespearean dimensions, and embellishing the father-child backstory to give things greater symmetry and a more universal thrust. In this respect “Hulk” differs from both comic book flicks that have taken a mostly light, unthreatening approach (the “Superman” films and, up to its very dark finale, last year’s “Spider-Man”) and those that have been more baroque and bizarre (the “Batman” pictures, for example). The most recent adaptation that attempted a similarly grave feel was “Daredevil,” but that picture was derailed by lots of miscalculations–a badly-cast Ben Affleck, clumsy direction, and uninspired veering into Burtonesque “Batman” territory. (The “X-Men” franchise has taken a more middle-of-the-road approach–call it “Star Trek” earnestness.) Happily, Lee’s effort is far more satisfying. He and his scripters have overcome the essential thinness of the original mythology, in which Banner was “transformed” by one of those recurrent lab accidents that serve as the origin of so many super-heroes, by reformatting it into a generational tale, in which the young Bruce Banner has inherited a genetic trait brought about by his (long-disappeared) father David’s experimentation on himself, which is then triggered by that lab accident. This change allows for the insertion of the recently-released, clearly deranged David as a major character, a true “Daddy Dearest” sort of obsessive, who returns to complete his work, even at the expense of his son. (It also give greater force to the traumatic experience the young Bruce suffered involving his mother, which in turns serves, in good Freudian fashion, as the basis for his repression of the unpleasant memories of his childhood. Though in itself the event isn’t psychologically much deeper than the young Matt Murdock’s suffering in “Daredevil,” the script allows for a greater sense of mystery by keeping the mother’s fate secret till near the end.) The Banner father-son backstory, moreover, is now complemented by another involving Betty Ross, Bruce’s lab partner and romantic interest; her estranged father is now the very same ramrod-straight army general who shut down David’s experiments and had him locked up in the first place. (This is, to be sure, a contrived coincidence, but one that in the event proves less damaging than one might imagine. After all, if you’re suspending disbelief about the Hulk bounding about the vast spaces of the American southwest, is it too much of a stretch to accept that Bruce, who in this version doesn’t know his birth family, and Betty accidentally wound up together?)

Of course, all the refashioning doesn’t make the “Hulk” narrative any less silly than it inherently is. And, in fact, the movie’s arc is pretty simple: after the four basic characters are introduced and a sleazy villain (a slick defense-industry exec) inserted, the Hulk is unleashed, then captured; he/it then escapes, and after an effects-laden chase is recaptured, leading to a big father-son confrontation to close the picture. What makes it work reasonably well are the extraordinary intensity that Lee brings to the material and the quality of his cast. Though he makes room for brief cameos by the likes of Stan Lee and Lou Ferrigno to please fanboys, the director treats the story, as ridiculous as it might be, with the same combination of solemnity and urgency he gave to the (no less absurd) mysticism of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and he’s even found a way to capture the form of its source by using split screens and step-by-step zoom shots to simulate the feel of comic book panels–a technique he employs with considerable panache. The contributions of cameraman Frederick Elmes and editor Tim Squyres to this achievement should not be overlooked, and neither should that of the throbbing, insistent score by Danny Elfman. Under Lee’s guidance, moreover, the actors don’t condescend to the material at all. Eric Bana gives a surprisingly rich, tortured complexity to the younger Banner, and Nick Nolte goes all out as his father, showing his skill at sinister reticence early on and then moving into raving lunacy toward the close with appropriate relish. Connelly has to weep a bit too often as the conflicted Betty, but her softness is a distinct plus, and Sam Elliott gives General “Thunderbolt” Ross all his patented gruff rigidity. Josh Lucas has much less to work with as the sleazy industrialist, but he leers well enough, and is certainly easy to hiss.

Of course, one major member of the cast isn’t human at all–the Hulk himself, who’s pure CGI. The figure is quite good in close-up–the manipulators have endowed him with extremely convincing facial movement–but less so when arrayed in full form against actual backdrops and interacting with real people and machines. That’s one reason why the big action sequences, though very carefully choreographed and executed, are on the whole less impressive than the more intimate elements of the picture. The big chase from General Ross’s desert base to San Francisco is the best of them, filled with incident and excitement, even if it’s rather overextended. But the two other major CGI episodes are less successful. The first is a battle between the Hulk and three fierce mutated dogs: shot in half-darkness, it’s like a more gruesome version of the kinds of scenes Ray Harryhausen used to devise for the Dynamation features, and it both goes on too long and doesn’t look terribly convincing. Then there’s the final struggle between the green hero and something–don’t ask me what– that his father has turned into. It certainly provides a resolution to the generational conflict that’s the centerpiece of the script, but it’s staged less confidently, as if it were an afterthought, and doesn’t end things on the high Lee was aiming for. The transformation scenes from Banner to Hulk and Hulk to Banner and the reverse are, on the other hand, very nicely managed. Of course, unlike with Mr. Hyde or Kong, it’s impossible to make “Hulk” a tragedy in the classic sense–and, in a forced nod to necessity, the movie adds a pallid postscript which assures us of Bruce’s survival (and opens the way for a sequel). Even Ang Lee, it seems, can’t entirely ignore current Hollywood convention when entrusted with a hundred million dollar budget.

But none of the flaws prove fatal. Lee has at once been faithful to the pop source material and invested it with surprising dramatic resonance; in his hands “Hulk” looks very much like a comic, but feels deeper and richer. It’s not a perfect film, but while very different from Lee’s earlier pictures it shares with them a combination of exquisite craftsmanship and emotional ambition. For a picture about a soulful green giant who tears apart tanks, knocks helicopters from the sky and hops over mountaintops, it’s a surprisingly human (and humane) movie.