NEW YORK – A famous comic book character. A plum June 20 release date. A $137 million budget -- including piles of tanks, planes and trucks to blow up.
The Hulk could have been a no-brainer.
But then, Oscar-nominated director Ang Lee (search) doesn't make no-brainers.
Instead, the director of such quiet art-house masterpieces as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Ice Storm set out to make a blockbuster for brainiacs.
"I'm trying to make a delicacy out of American fast food," Lee told a reporter last month.
Love it or hate it, one of the summer's most anticipated popcorn flicks is in fact anything but, thanks to a director who's breaking all the usual rules.
Rule No. 1: Hire a big-name star.
Even Lou Ferrigno -- the actor who played the Hulk in the '70s TV series -- is more recognizable (he has a cameo as a security guard) than the man who plays the Hulk in the movie, Australian television star Eric Bana (search).
Lee picked an unknown for Bruce Banner, the mild-mannered geneticist who morphs into the raving green Hulk, because he didn't want to detract from the movie's real star -- the computer-generated Hulk character, which he developed over two years with 150 animators from George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic. (search)
Some comic book fans were unimpressed when they saw an early version of ILM's Hulk in an ad that ran during January's Super Bowl.
But "that Hulk was just a zygote," Lee's long-time writing and producing partner, James Schamus, told The Post. "Now he's a full-grown adult."
Rule No. 2: The more explosions, the better.
The Hulk has more than its share of helicopters and tanks, but don't expect any of them to burst into flames.
"We figured that people are bored with a bunch of crap blowing up," says Schamus. "Plus, Ang and I don't believe in gratuitous violence."
So when the Hulk picks up a tank, spins it over his head and tosses it 500 yards away, the camera deliberately shows the soldier escaping, completely unscathed.
Rule No. 3: Keep the fighting clean.
When Lee did get ready to rumble, he wanted the fighting as realistic as possible, which meant not every punch hit its target.
The scene where the Hulk pounds on a pack of wild dogs sent to murder his ex-girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly (search)) is so graphic, it's almost unbearable.
"Ang wanted it raw and messy -- just like real fights," says Colin Brady, Lee's animation director. "In the Matrix Reloaded, the fights are choreographed, like 1-2-3-duck-punch. It gets monotonous."
The Hulk's fights are based on pit bulls, pro wrestlers and bloody, bare-knuckled ultimate fighters -- all of which Lee and the animators studied on film and in person.
Rule No. 4: Keep it moving - fast.
Parts of the The Hulk move as slowly as the laid-back martial art of tai chi, which Lee practices each morning.
Action scenes are broken up with lingering shots of lichen-covered rocks and bleached driftwood, which really do have a point, Schamus insists.
It's a message about life-forms that can survive the sort of gamma radiation that transforms Banner into the Hulk.
"Ang and I once spent an hour talking about a rock," Brady recalls.
"At first, it was all a bit confusing. But I've always been a fan of Ang's movies, so I decided to just trust him."
Rule No. 5: Keep it simple.
That's the last thing Lee wants to do.
His Hulk flouts dozens of technical rules film-school students learn in Directing 101. He splits the screen into comic-book style panels and plays with editing, continuity and camera angles in every way possible.
"This movie just doesn't feel like a Hollywood movie," Brady says. "It's Ang's '[expletive] you' to all those formulas."
It could have been even weirder, however.
The movie's distributor, Universal Pictures, persuaded Lee to compromise on a few points, including Ice Storm composer Mychael Danna's original score, an esoteric wash of Middle-Eastern music, dominated by a wailing woman's voice.
Now the movie has a more upbeat score by Spider-Man composer Danny Elfman.
"If you think the film is artsy now," Brady says, "you should have seen it six months ago."