A not-so-jolly green giant pounds onto the big screen

He's big. He's mean. But is the muscle-bound Hulk believable?

"It's not easy being green," as Kermit the Frog has informed us - and he's a cute shade of the color.

Imagine what it's like for the Hulk, that popular anti- hero of comic-book and TV fame. His green is an ominous hue. And on top of this he's ugly, ill-tempered, and literally too big for his britches. It's really not easy being him.

It's not easy making a movie about him, either, since he's not a very personable or photogenic fellow. Accordingly, director Ang Lee and scenarist James Schamus focus much of "Hulk" on Bruce Banner, the cerebral scientist who becomes a modern-day Dr. Jekyll after gamma rays wreak havoc on his cellular makeup.

His troubled psychology is a driving force of the movie as he copes with traumatic childhood memories, tries for a romance with fellow researcher Betty Ross, and wrestles with forbidden impulses that explode into reality when his alter ego takes over.

The other driving force is, naturally, the Hulk himself - which doesn't mean Mr. Lee and company have morphed him into an interesting character. Predictably, and regrettably, he's as monotonous and monosyllabic on the screen as in the comic-book pages that spawned him.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is also monotonous and monosyllabic, of course, and this hasn't prevented him from becoming a global superstar. I don't expect "Hulk" to have similar staying power, if only because he's a digitized 'toon who can't show up in magazine spreads and talk-show spots. But in the short term he's likely to be every bit as popular as any action figure around, human or otherwise.

Departing from the original Marvel Comics premise, the movie changes the reason for Bruce's transformations from a bomb-testing accident to a genetic experiment - an alteration future historians may see as a minor landmark in the sociological switch from cold-war paranoia to fears based on biotech concerns. It turns out Bruce's dad is largely responsible for his predicament, allowing a dose of pop-Freudian psychology to surge through the screenplay, too.

That may interest older folks who decide to see "Hulk," but for its young target audience, the film makes sure to deliver action, action, action. The silliest bits - with the Hulk jumping through the US desert like some sort of superfrog - recall the gravity-defying choreography of Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," a hit "Hulk" would surely like to emulate.

Other adventure scenes are more plausible, even if they make the muscle-bound main character more graceful than logic would suggest.

What's most appealing about the film is its visual style, a reminder that Lee started his career as an art-film auteur. His crafty use of split screens, unexpected scene transitions, and hallucinatory images is worth watching even when the plot runs short on ideas. The cast is also fine, with strong acting by Eric Bana as the ill-starred scientist, Jennifer Connelly as his girlfriend, and Nick Nolte as his dad. Always energetic and sometimes cockamamie enough to be genuinely fun, "Hulk" is the blockbuster to beat this season.

Rated PG-13 for violence.

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