The big comeback

Film - Philip Kerr on the return of two implausible relics - Hulk and Arnold Schwarzenegger

''Pumping iron is a great feeling," says Arnold Schwarzeneg- ger in the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron, about the world of bodybuilding. "Like coming, but coming continuously."

I'm not sure I find this a persuasive rhetorical ornament, and I rather think that Arnie was doing his outrageous best to grab the camera's attention. If so, then certainly he succeeded, and in a way that the other star of Pumping Iron, Lou Ferrigno, did not - for there was no bigger movie star in the 1980s and 1990s than Arnold Schwarzenegger. If Arnie looked, in Clive James's immortal phrase, like a condom stuffed with walnuts, then Ferrigno looked like a condom stuffed with broccoli, because the height of his limited and muscle-bound fame was to be the green-painted star of the hit TV series The Incredible Hulk.

Unfortunately for Ferrigno, Universal Pictures decided not to have him reprise the role in Hulk, directed by Ang Lee. Instead, they chose to use a computer-generated monster. Now, although CGI (computer-generated imagery) works very well with dinosaurs - never having seen a real one, none of us is in a position to judge how realistic the film versions are - it doesn't work at all with human beings, even a green one that's 15 feet tall. Surely another mistake was to feature the CGI Hulk in bright sunshine, which only serves to heighten his lack of realism. Contrast this with the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, rarely seen except in forest glades, thunderstorms and darkness, which helps to disguise their silicone origins.

It was also my impression that this Hulk bears a greater facial resemblance to the film's leading lady, Jennifer Connelly, than to Eric Bana, who plays the Hulk's smaller alter ego. But, for all his obvious artificiality, this not so jolly green giant still manages to turn in no more wooden a performance than any of the other actors in this poor film, with the one exception of Nick Nolte - an actor who looks and sounds increasingly like the Incredible Husk.

Which prompts me to wonder what became of the adjective that once featured in the title of the Marvel Comics story on which this film is based. Perhaps the producers decided to drop it when they realised they had created a CGI Hulk that seems no more credible than a hunk of Woolworths Plasticine animated by Nick Park; I half expected to see Wallace and Gromit clinging on to the Hulk's enormous ear. All of which perhaps explains why this movie was already in cinemas a week before it was officially released.

Speaking of ears, Ferrigno is 80 per cent deaf, which is why he always sounds a little like Schwarzenegger when he talks and why, wisely, Ferrigno always stayed silent in the TV series. By the same token, Schwarzenegger has only ever been convincing as an actor when he has played an American politician or, as in Terminator 3: rise of the machines, a robot. Of late, Schwarzenegger's career has taken a nosedive and this $170m movie looks very much like a make-or-break for the 55-year-old former bodybuilder. It's rumoured that if T3 bombs Arnie will try to become the next governor of California.

At this point, it's worth remembering that three years after playing Big Jack Browning, a gangster crook with no redeeming qualities, in Don Siegel's The Killers (1964), one Ronald Reagan was bringing the same qualities to the state capitol as governor of California. Reagan looked quite at home in Siegel's film; the scene where the future president of the United States slaps Angie Dickinson and earns himself a right hook from John Cassavetes still delivers a great feeling of excitement. Not as good as coming but, as movie thrills go, it gives a small hard-on, perhaps.

Sadly for the people of California, however, Schwarzenegger no longer looks comfortable in any movie, even a tailor-made picture like this one, in which he is playing to his strengths; and his much-written-about heart (six years ago, Schwarzenegger had surgery to replace a damaged aorta) doesn't look as though it's in this film at all. Indeed at one stage he even seems to make a joke about his heart surgery when he rips open his own chest, pulls out his computerised heart and throws it away. Schwarzenegger does his best, but the new movie, directed by Jonathan Mostow, lacks the flair of its two predecessors, both directed by James Cameron. The special effects, while better than those in Hulk, look no more exciting or cutting-edge than those of Terminator 2: judgement day (1991). The sad truth is that Arnie now resembles nothing so much as one of those escaped CGI dinosaurs from Jurassic Park, and it might be a real kindness if this relic of another movie-going age could be put down humanely.

Hulk (12a) is on general release. Terminator 3: rise of the machines (12a) goes on general release from 8 August