Hancock (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Hancock Poster

Hancock is a hodgepodge of intriguing ideas that, if developed further or presented as more than throw-ins to a confused production, might have made for a unique superhero film. The resulting movie, however, shows all the signs of studio interference and never establishes a clear identity or tone. To the extent that Hancock works, it's largely because of Will Smith, whose performance is stronger than what this otherwise scattershot production deserves. Hancock is sometimes funny, sometimes clever, and occasionally involving, but it's never brilliant and its edge is compromised by the neutering that accompanies the teen-friendly PG-13 rating.

Imagine Superman as an alcoholic misanthrope and you've got John Hancock (Will Smith), a downtrodden man with superpowers who just doesn't give a damn. His life philosophy is encapsulated by one word: "asshole." That's what he thinks of everyone and that's what they think of him. Hancock's rescues often turn into fiascos. On one occasion, he gets the bad guys but, in the process, causes $9 million in collateral damage. On another occasion, he saves a guy from getting hit by a freight train but, in the process, damages a few automobiles and causes the train to derail. Life is like that for Hancock. The D.A. wants him behind bars (the kind found in prison - not the kind he's familiar with) and he's being sued by seemingly half the people in the city. He's always got a bottle in his hand and even the kids who could be cheering him are calling him an "asshole."

Things start to change when he saves Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) from the train. Ray, the proprietor of his own floundering P.R. business, recognizes Hancock's shortcomings but believes that, with a little image makeover, Hancock can become a beloved figure. The image reformation comes with a price tag, however: a prison stint, rehab, a shave, and a cheesy costume. Meanwhile, Ray's wife, Mary (Charlize Theron), and Hancock are exchanging meaningful glances, hinting at a past connection. And, while Hancock appears to be invulnerable, everyone knows that all Supermen have their Kryptonites.

Hancock is two films. The first, the tale of the anti-hero learning to be a defender of Truth, Justice, and the American Way, is by far the more entertaining of the two. The movie's second piece is muddled and disjointed as the screenplay provides revelations about Hancock's origin. This aspect of the production has the scope of a Shakespearean tragedy and cannot effectively be addressed in the 45 minutes allotted to it. Both halves could have worked if properly expanded with the gaps filled in, but by compressing them into a single unit, the story as a whole suffers.

Hancock's opening segments occasionally call to mind the likes of the Arnold Schwarzenegger spoof, Last Action Hero, and the Pixar animated superhero movie, The Incredibles. The film, credited to director Peter Berg, has that sort of sensibility as it works to demythologize the superhero. Hancock is indeed the perfect asshole and there are plenty of opportunities for comedy. Smith, the consummate professional, wrings as much humor as he can from these situations, so there are laughs to be had. There's also a sense that someone other than Berg has his fingerprints on this project. A lot of the material is R-rated but it has been cut and cropped and shot in such a way that it can get away with a PG-13. There's something fundamentally dishonest about taking inherently adult material and chipping away at it until it's tame enough to be suitable for all ages.

Hancock's tone becomes more subdued, although not entirely downbeat, during the second half as the main character faces the sad truth about himself and his past. The ending is a complete mess. In order to achieve a balance between tension, tragedy, and smiles, the film doesn't play by its own rules. Much of what occurs during the climax makes little sense, and the supposed "villain," a thug named Red (Eddie Marsan), is about as intimidating as a warm cup of butterscotch pudding. Part of the inherent problem with Hancock's structure is the lack of a dramatically viable opponent. Since there isn't one, one has to be manufactured on the spot, and Red is the unfortunate result.

Will Smith's charisma is Hancock's single most important asset. All things being equal, we would not like Hancock. But we're primed to like Smith. This means that we end up rooting for the anti-hero to become a hero rather than wishing he would be swallowed up in a supernova. Only an actor of Smith's likeability could pull this off. Playing the too-good-to-be-true Ray, Jason Bateman is no less charming but a lot less imposing. This is a variation of his Juno persona. Charlize Theron is fine as Mary, but the character is mishandled from the beginning and Theron's second-billing status exacerbates matters. We know that an actor of her stature and caliber isn't going to play a simple housewife. Because this is Charlize Theron, those glances mean a lot more than a playful flirtation (or even an impending affair). Putting her in this movie is tantamount to erecting a blinking neon sign indicating that there's more to Mary than meets the eye. Cast a star of lesser magnitude in the role and Hancock might have been able keep this particular "twist" obscured. At the very least, it wouldn't have been obvious from the beginning.

Despite all the flaws and the frustrating sense that the movie could have offered a lot more than it actually does, Hancock is nevertheless a moderately enjoyable experience. It's a glass half-full/half-empty sort of thing. So far, this summer has seen a superior superhero movie (Iron Man), a solid one (The Incredible Hulk), and now this. Hancock is the worst of the three, but it's nowhere near the bottom of the genre. It works a lot better as a comedy/satire than as an action/adventure story, but its inability to emphasize the former elements over the latter hamstrings its appeal. An uncertainty about identity becomes not only the hero's problem, but the movie's as well.

Hancock (United States, 2008)

Director: Peter Berg
Cast: Will Smith, Charlize Theron, Jason Bateman, Jae Head, Eddie Marsan
Screenplay: Vy Vincent Ngo & Vince Gilligan
Cinematography: Tobias A. Schliessler
Music: John Powell
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Run Time: 1:32
U.S. Release Date: 2008-07-02
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1