Sam Elliott

Hulk

2003

Universal Pictures/Marvel Enterprises 

Directed by Ang Lee

Produced by Avi Arad, Larry J. Franco, Gale Anne Hurd, James Schamus, Stan Lee, Kevin Feige

Screenplay by James Schamus, Michael France, John Turman

Based on “The Incredible Hulk” created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

 

Comic book fans.  God bless ‘em.  Somebody better bless ‘em ‘cause they most surely need it.  For me to amplify on that statement we have to go back to the 1970’s.  All the way back to when all there were was TV movies, cartoons and shows based on my favorite Marvel characters like The Hulk, Captain America, Dr. Strange and Spider-Man.  The Dr. Strange TV movie actually wasn’t that bad but the two Captain America movies were pretty poor.  The Spider-Man TV series boasted a Spider-Man that wore a belt and one webshooter on the outside of his costume.  The Hulk TV series actually was very good at times and is still fondly remembered.  When you mention The Hulk to the average non-comic book fan, it’s the TV show they’ll probably remember.

But ever since those dismal days of Made-For-TV movies that looked they were filmed in somebody’s backyards or highly unconvincing sets with actors who clearly were doing this for the paycheck, comic book fans have been bitching, moaning and whining.

They gnashed their teeth, tore at their clothing and prayed for a major superhero movie with a lavish budget for quality special effects.  With an Academy Award winning director and actors who truly cared about the material and would treat it with respect.  With a literate screenplay that emphasized the emotional, dramatic and psychological life of its characters and simply wasn’t punchy-punchy-run-run.

And then they got HULK and they proceeded to lose their mollyfoggin’ minds.

HULK is a movie that polarizes comic book fans.  They either love it or hate it.  The main argument against the movie I hear is that it’s “boring” which I honestly don’t understand.  The Hulk isn’t your usual superhero and there are elements of the character’s backstory that deal with child and spousal abuse, alcoholism, emotional trauma, megalomania, the ethical responsibility of science and its practitioners.  The Hulk isn’t about a guy who puts on a costume and goes out to beat up on the bad guys.  It’s another type of character and needs to be told in another kind of way.  Not that The Hulk can’t be utilized in a superhero universe.  He has.  It’s just that his origin story has to be faithful to the uniqueness of the character and HULK certainly is unique among superhero movies.

Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) is a bionuclear researcher working on a branch of nanotechnology called ‘nanomeds’ which has medical applications.  It’s a project that comes to the attention of Major Glenn Talbot (Josh Lucas).  Talbot envisions armies of soldiers who can heal themselves during combat using nanomeds.  Bruce isn’t interested.  Mainly because he just doesn’t like the military very much and he definitely doesn’t like Talbot who is most certainly interested in not only Bruce’s research but also his co-researcher and ex-girlfriend Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly).  Betty father, General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (Sam Elliott) is keeping an eye on all of them.  Betty and her father already have a strained relationship because of Bruce as General Ross has urged her time and again to stay away from him.

Turns out that in this instance, Daddy does know best.  After an accident in the lab in which Bruce is exposed to a insanely high dose of gamma radiation he finds himself in times of emotional stress turning into a seven foot tall, one thousand pound green skinned man-monster driven by rage.  Unknown to Bruce, his DNA has been mutated due to experiments his father David Banner (Nick Nolte) performed upon himself, those experiments uncannily similar to Bruce’s.  It’s the combination of Bruce’s already mutated DNA with the gamma radiation that gives birth to The Hulk.

Let me put it to you in the simplest way I can: you’re not gonna get “Hulk Smash!” in this one.  There is an absolutely wonderful battle between The Hulk and the Thunderbolt Ross led forces of the United States Army in the desert that is taken right from countless Hulk comic books but The Hulk pounding the piss outta the bad guys isn’t what’s at stake here.  You’ll have to wait for the Ed Norton starring “The Incredible Hulk” to get that.

What we have here is a movie about two adults who have been emotionally scarred by their parents.  Their true union is a struggle to heal their damaged psyches.  Both Bruce and Betty are victims of the monstrous egos of their respective fathers.  In Bruce’s case it causes him to turn into the living embodiment of his repressed rage.  In Betty’s case it causes her to be almost uncontrollably drawn to emotionally repressed men who can never give her what she truly needs to contribute to a healthy romantic relationship.

Heavy stuff for a superhero movie, huh?  Sure it is.  But it’s anything but boring and not every superhero movie has to be about punching out the bad guys.  HULK is more about how most of us are our own bad guys.

And directors of superhero movies could learn something from the astonishing visual techniques Ang Lee uses to not so much try to literally duplicate the storytelling methods of comic books but his strategy here seems to be to suggest those methods and not beat us over the head with it.  It’s amazing to watch a director use the split screen technique in a way that is truly different.  He uses pictures within picture, foreground and background merging with each other.  That’s why I never understand those who say that HULK is boring.  It’s a movie that is always moving just through the imaginative transitions from scene to the next.

But bitter waters come with the sweet and as much as I like HULK I have to agree with those of you who hate the Gamma Dogs sequence.  First of all; Gamma Dogs?  And second, the way it’s filmed at night it’s difficult to tell what’s going on.  And while Nick Nolte is one of my favorite actors I watch this movie and can’t help but wonder what movie did he think he was in.  And that ending is absolutely incomprehensible.  Mark Bousquet in his excellent review  of HULK says that the movie should have ended when The Hulk is transformed back into Bruce by the calming presence of Betty Ross and falls into her arms.  And he’s absolutely right.  We get another twenty minutes of Nick Nolte ranting and raving and trying to explain to Bruce what his deal is.  And there’s another nighttime fight except this one takes place in a lake where we really can’t see what the cuss is going on.

This is a movie where I can’t find fault with anybody’s acting job.  Sam Elliott is the definitive Thunderbolt Ross.  Jennifer Connelly continues to show why she’s one of the most dependable actresses working today.  I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen her turn in a bad performance.  Eric Bana makes for an interesting Bruce Banner.  He doesn’t play him as a wimp or as a weakling.  His Bruce Banner is a guy who has been dealt some pretty hard knocks by life ever since he was knee high to a knee and it’s taken his toll on his emotional make-up.

I’ve long given up trying to get comic book fans to see HULK through my eyes.  They hate it, they’re gonna hate it and I have come to terms with that.  I enjoy HULK and put it on the shelf with movies such as “The Rocketeer” “The Phantom” and “Speed Racer” which most people don’t like but I feel as if the filmmakers made those movies just for me.  I like to call HULK an art house superhero movie.  I’ve heard various critics call it a superhero movie for people who don’t like superhero movies.  Bottom line is this: HULK isn’t for everybody but I am glad it’s for me.

138 minutes

PG-13

Ghost Rider

2007
Columbia Pictures

Written and Directed by Mark Steven Johnson
Produced by Avi Arad, Michael DeLuca, Gary Foster and Steven Paul
Based on the Marvel Comics character created by Roy Thomas, Gary Friedrich and Mike Ploog

When it comes to visuals, The Ghost Rider has just about every other superhero beat. He’s a leather wearing demon biker with a flaming skull riding a supernatural motorcycle on wheels of hellfire. There’s just absolutely no way you can not look at Ghost Rider and go ‘Whoa’. He’s just that cool. And the character has enjoyed a long and healthy life in comic books having first appeared back in the 1970’s. He’s been reinvented several times but the hellishly striking visual look of the character has remained fairly constant. I imagine that when the idea of a GHOST RIDER movie was pitched, the visual of the character was what sold the project. And thanks to today’s CGI technology we can have a Ghost Rider on screen that’s amazingly faithful to the look of the character. This after all is what every Ghost Rider fan on the planet wanted to see. Most every Ghost Rider fan I spoke to in person and online prior to the movie’s release said just about the same thing: “I don’t care about the story as long as they get the look right.”

There’s an old saying that one should be careful of what one wishes for because you may get it. And Ghost Rider fans did. As a story, the movie version isn’t much of a faithful adaptation. In order to do that, GHOST RIDER would have had to been a hard R movie to properly convey the supernatural/horror background of the character. But they absolutely get the visuals right and nowadays maybe that’s the best we can hope for.

The totally kickass prolog narrated by Sam Elliott recounts the history The Ghost Rider, one damned soul selected by Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) every generation to serve as his bounty hunter. Back in the Old West, a Ghost Rider stole a contract from the town of San Venganza, all of whose citizens sold their souls into damnation. This Ghost Rider outran The Devil himself and hid both himself and the contract away. The opening itself made me wish the entire movie had been set in The Old West as we probably would have gotten something really cool. But I digress.

Cut to the modern world. Young Johnny Blaze (Matt Long) and his father Barton (Brett Cullen) are daredevil motorcycle stunt riders for a circus. Johnny’s dad is dying from lung cancer and Mephistopheles appears one night and offers Johnny a deal: sell his soul and The Devil will cure Barton Blaze’s cancer. Of course we all know the danger of making a deal with The Devil and this is no exception. Barton Blaze dies performing a stunt and consumed with grief, Johnny leaves town and his one true love Roxanne Simpson behind.

Jump to years later when Johnny Blaze (Nicholas Cage) is a world famous daredevil who is known for walking away unharmed from crashes that would have killed any other man. He encounters Roxanne (Eva Mendez) again and they pick up their relationship. Which is promptly sent into the toilet when Mephistopheles shows up and transforms Johnny into The Ghost Rider and charges him with the task of destroying his son Blackheart (Wes Bentley) who is after the Contract of San Venganza. To achieve his goal, Blackheart has enlisted the aid of three fallen angels who have taken on the aspect of Elementals of Earth, Air and Water. Of course, while everybody is after this blasted Contract it’s never really explained what either Mephistopheles or Blackheart intend to do with it once they get it. The Ghost Rider has a fight with Blackheart and his boys and afterwards ends up at a graveyard which is being tended to by The Caretaker (Sam Elliott) who seems to know just about everything about The Contract, The Ghost Rider, Blackheart…hell, he knows so much that they could just have had him narrating the first hour of the movie. It all finally comes down to The Ghost Rider having to face down Blackheart in the town of San Venganza to keep The Contract out of his hands and save Roxanne.

Okay, let’s cut to the chase here: there’s not much of a story in GHOST RIDER. It’s a pretty straightforward origin story designed to do nothing but set up a franchise and on that level it succeeds. Nicholas Cage is obviously having a good time playing Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider although I think he’s about fifteen years too old for the part. He doesn’t stretch himself trying to create deep characterization here and instead gives Johnny quirks like ‘drinking’ jelly beans from a martini glass and listening to The Carpenters before a dangerous stunt. Peter Fonda and Sam Elliott walk off with the acting honors in this one and if the movie had been set in The Old West with the two of them as the stars then that version would have been a stunner. Eva Mendez and her amazing cleavage is a lot of fun to look at even when the scenes she’s in have dull dialog.  As for Wes Bentley…if he had any kind of artistic honor and integrity he’d give back the check he got for this movie. It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen an acting job quite this poor and uninspired.

In fact, the main problem with GHOST RIDER is that the villains are so dull, bland and downright boring that there’s absolutely no suspense from start to finish. The three Elementals are literally blown away with no problem at all as The Ghost Rider simply walks right over them like they’re not there. And the final showdown with Blackheart hardly is worth sitting through the whole movie for. The writer/director of GHOST RIDER also wrote and directed “Daredevil” and I really get a sense in both movies that Mark Steve Johnson has a genuine love for these characters and wants to do them right. Especially The Ghost Rider as Johnson takes great pains to acknowledge at least four different incarnations of the character during the movie’s run time. But something just isn’t working. There was a H&R Block TV commercial featuring The Ghost Rider getting his taxes done that was more fun than this movie. “Daredevil” is the better movie but not by much. At least GHOST RIDER has the absolutely stunning visuals of the character and the equally stunning Eva Mendez to look at.

So should you see GHOST RIDER? Chances are that if you’re a fan of the character you already have and you’re happy just to have seen the demon biker on screen and couldn’t give a poobah’s pizzle what I say. As for the rest of you who haven’t seen it, it all depends on much you like superhero movies, Nicholas Cage, Peter Fonda, Sam Elliott and Eva Mendez. GHOST RIDER isn’t a bad movie. Everybody (with the notable exception of Wes Bentley) tries hard. It just isn’t a very good one either.

114 minutes
Rated PG-13