Ang Lee attracted droves of subtitle-shy Americans to his Mandarin-language epic ‘‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,’’ an elegant and deeply passionate story of tragic heroes.
With ‘‘The Hulk,’’ director Lee is working from comic-book roots intimately familiar to Americans. Yet he produces an emotionally anesthetized tale that’s short on plot and heavy on hushed brooding, the somber tone undermined by a silly-looking 800-pound computer-animated gorilla.
Lee gets solid performances from most of the cast, including Jennifer Connelly, Nick Nolte and Eric Bana as Bruce Banner, the scientist who morphs into an angry behemoth because of a lab accident.
And ‘‘The Hulk’’ is cleverly crafted, with Lee applying a sometimes distracting flurry of split screens, pictures within pictures and other fanciful framing techniques to simulate comic-book panels.
Too bad Lee didn’t save some of that whimsy for the story itself. Other comic-book adaptations — ‘‘Spider-Man,’’ ‘‘Daredevil,’’ the ‘‘X-Men’’ and ‘‘Blade’’ movies — have had their dark edges, but a sense of fantastical fun remained at their core.
Except for a cameo by Lou Ferrigno — who played Bill Bixby’s beast within on the TV series ‘‘The Incredible Hulk’’ and earns chuckles with a walk-on as a security guard — the movie adaptation ‘‘Hulk’’ has virtually no sense of playfulness.
The tone is oppressively serious, befitting Greek or Shakespearean tragedy more than a tale ripped from the pages of Marvel Comics.
The story by Lee’s producing partner James Schamus and the screenplay credited to Schamus, John Turman and Michael France has barely enough plot to sustain an hourlong TV pilot.
‘‘The Hulk’’ is more a study of flawed characters than a coherent story. The movie opens with a promising montage of science and ego gone wrong as David Banner, a researcher for the military, experiments on himself, passes on a genetic alteration to son Bruce, then goes ballistic when the government tries to shut down his work.
Decades later, having been raised by foster parents, Bruce (Bana) unknowingly follows his father, conducting gene research with ex-girlfriend Betty Ross (Connelly). Bruce survives an accidental overdose of radiation, which reacts with his genetic abnormality, turning him into a non-jolly green giant whenever he gets mad.
By coincidence, Bruce’s shadowy dad (Nolte) shows up about the same time, with hazy motives that apparently involve starting Banner & Son Enterprises, specializing in producing really ticked-off monsters.
Also by coincidence, Betty’s father is Gen. ‘‘Thunderbolt’’ Ross (Sam Elliott), the same honcho who derailed David Banner’s career and who now wants to harness the power of Bruce’s beastly alter ego, which grows larger the angrier he gets.
But Ross heads a crack unit whose mandate seems to be: ‘‘Oops, we unleashed the monster again. Let’s fire more bullets and missiles so it’ll get bigger and madder.’’
From there on, the movie is mostly turgid visuals as the Hulk races through the desert or leaps from mountain peak to peak pursued by heavy armaments.
Like Fay Wray in ‘‘King Kong,’’ Betty’s the only thing that calms the Hulk down, but that 1933 classic did the beauty-and-the-beast thing with more recognizable humanity.
And watching the great ape mutely reflect on his sorry circumstances held far more pathos than listening to Bruce and his associates drone on about the dichotomy of the ‘‘superficial shell’’ of humanity vs. the savage inside.
Certainly, the Hulk and other Marvel superheroes engage in their share of weighty self-reflection. But these guys are not Oedipus or Hamlet. They’re two-dimensional freaks in silly Technicolor tights or garish full-body mutations.
Yet Lee’s ‘‘Hulk’’ tips the scales at well over two hours of inner-demon hand-wringing punctuated by a few endless, repetitive action sequences featuring a big fat cartoon character.
He’s ‘‘Crouching Lummox, Hidden Oaf,’’ Roger Rabbit without the slapstick, as laughably absurd as bodybuilder Ferrigno was in his green dye job and fright wig on the TV show.
The computer-generated Hulk is true to the look of the comic books, but other superhero adaptations have made wise concessions on characters’ appearances to more credibly morph them to cinematic mold.
Lee’s Hulk, though elaborately formed, is a ridiculous figure that stands out like a sore green thumb among the real-world trappings the filmmakers plunk him down into.
Starring:Eric Bana, Nick Nolte, Jennifer Connelly, Sam Elliot
Playing: Opens Friday throughout the Valley
Rating:PG-13 (sci-fi action violence, some disturbing images, brief partial nudity)
Running time: 2 hours, 18 minutes