Director: Peter Berg
A lot of superhero movies have a certain something in common. No matter how much damage or destruction is caused during their exploits, superheroes eventually get a free pass from the public at large because he or she is serving the greater good. Sooner or later, though, there was bound to be a superhero whose actions didn't exactly endear him to the general public. That superhero finally arrived when Columbia Pictures brought us Hancock. The movie spent over a decade languishing in developmental hell, going through five directors, numerous rewrites, and three name changes. But Hancock was finally released in the summer of 2008, telling the tale of a cynical superhero who isn't concerned with the fact that he's thoroughly unappreciated by the people he's supposed to be protecting. Though the movie's concept is one that could have made for a fun commentary on superheroes and the genre they populate, but unfortunately, Hancock ends up being a big ol' letdown.
John Hancock (Will Smith) is a superhero, blessed with the gifts of super-strength, flight, invulnerability, and immortality. He's also a homeless bum, a raging alcoholic, and someone who just doesn't give a crap about anybody or anything. That works just fine for the citizens of Los Angeles, because they don't particularly care for him either. The city's general displeasure with Hancock is caused not only by his bad attitude, but thanks to his recklessness, his attempts at fighting crime often go very awry. In one instance, his interception of a gang being chased by the police causes nine million dollars worth of collateral damage in the process. In another, he saves a man from being hit by a freight train, but his lackadaisical attempt results in the train's derailment.
But after the train incident, Hancock's life is about to get a little different. Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), a struggling yet idealistic public relations executive and the man Hancock saved from the train, is genuinely grateful for having been rescued. And much to the chagrin of his disapproving wife Mary (Charlize Theron), Ray offers to repay Hancock by helping change his image for the better. With better interpersonal skills, a few public apologies, a customized leather costume, and some help from Alcoholics Anonymous and anger management classes, Ray thinks Hancock could go from being an antisocial drunk that receives more jeers than cheers to being the respected hero he could be. Ray even suggests Hancock do a stint in prison for the various misdemeanors he has committed, theorizing that the crime rate would rise high enough during Hancock's absence that the police would be begging for his assistance. Though hesitant, Hancock eventually agrees to heed Ray's advice and starts to change his ways. But as Ray and Hancock's business relationship blossoms, there soon grows an odd spark between Hancock and Mary. And as we all know, every superhero has a weakness, and Hancock's quickly reveals itself.
Hancock is perhaps the most bipolar movie I believe I've ever seen. It doesn't know whether it wants to be a conventional superhero movie or a satire of them, or whether it wants to be a melodrama, an action movie, a dark comedy, or something with a little more slapstick. There is so much potential in Hancock's concept, but its indecisiveness and its inconsistency in regards to its own identity really affects it in a bad way. It ends up becoming a number of completely different movies crammed into one ultimately disappointing 92-minute package. The first of these movies starts promising, but once we reach a certain point, the movie takes an incredibly sharp turn for the worse. If I may borrow a metaphor from the review written by Kenneth Turan for the Los Angeles Times, the creators of Hancock had a tiger by the tail with the movie's initial concept. But once they let it go, the tiger turned around and devoured them. And that, my friends, is the story of Hancock.
As per the usual in my reviews, let's begin with the direction. Peter Berg is at the helm here, and admittedly, his work isn't too bad. He's competent, at the very least. It doesn't help Berg, though, that he's stuck working from a script that feels like it was cobbled together from a bunch of other scripts. It feels like several movies put into one, which puts Berg in the awkward position of having to make sense of it all. He does do the best he can, though. He and cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler manage to make a movie that at least looks good. Their work goes a long way, making the intimate scenes feel intimate and the action scenes feel exciting, for the most part. (It also helps that they have John Powell's effective musical score helping them along.) There are some parts that don't quite work, but it's mostly due to the bad writing or the occasional instance of less-than-stellar special effects. But Berg and Schliessler put things together solidly, and any complaints I have are minor at worst.
Up next is the writing, which is the worst problem Hancock suffers from. Credited to Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan, the script got its start as "Tonight, He Comes," a spec script written by Ngo back in 1996. Going through all kinds of rewrites between then and now, the script ended up becoming a brutal mismatch of ideas, none of which properly gel together. Does the movie want to be a standard superhero flick? A parody or deconstruction of them? A comedy or a drama? The superhero version of Leaving Las Vegas? It could have been any of these and none of these, but it's hard to tell because all the rewrites have diluted the movie into a total mess. It's hard to really get into a movie if you're not sure exactly what kind of movie it's supposed to be. The script ultimately makes Hancock a confused movie unsure of its own identity. It's bad enough to ruin the entire movie.
It doesn't help anything that Hancock doesn't even really have a villain. The way the movie is structured leaves precious little room for an antagonist. But since they have to do something to create tension in the (rather lame) climax, they end up shoehorning in some random thug that Hancock encountered halfway through the movie. The character, played by Eddie Marsan, only has three scenes at most, and is a complete non-factor until the end. I don't think they even bother to give the character's name until the cast listing in the closing credits. The whole thing is an exercise in futility. Maybe they could have ripped off the twist from Unbreakable and made Ray the villain. Jason Bateman doesn't seem like the villainous type, but that's what would've made it work. Nobody would have seen it coming.
However, the cast does make attempts to overcome the lame writing. Casting Will Smith proved to be a wise move for two reasons. One is that the producers guaranteed themselves box office success. Unless the movie ends up being as terrible as Wild Wild West, a midsummer blockbuster starring Will Smith is going to make a lot of money. The second reason it was a wise move is that Smith's charisma and charm make the character worth following. It's weird seeing Smith play a character that starts out being so abrasive. It's like a character that would have been played by Tom Cruise in the mid-'80s. The truth is that if he were played by anyone else, you'd end up absolutely hating Hancock's guts. But Smith's naturally charming nature makes hating him really tough. He is good in the role, though. His performance as the cynical drunk version of Hancock is so engaging, in fact, that you almost want the character to stay off the road to redemption.
He's so good, in fact, that he almost totally overshadows the supporting cast, as small as it is. Jason Bateman is effective as Ray, infusing the character with a much-needed sense of earnestness (and a little naïveté, as well). It really suits the character well. Bateman is endearing in the role, and you can't help but like him. And in the role of Bateman's character's wife, Charlize Theron's performance is acceptable, but I'm not quite sure if she was the right person for the role. I can understand why she was hired; if I were a movie producer, I'd want to hire an Oscar winner too. But the character is an enigmatic one, one whose background sets up an absolutely ridiculous plot twist halfway through the movie. The character comes across as way too mysterious for her own good before the actual twist occurs, and it's only exacerbated by Theron's presence. She is way too famous to be playing a simple housewife in a movie like this, so you know something is up as soon as you see her. If the role had been played by a B-list character actress instead, maybe things wouldn't have been so... I don't know, obvious? Is that the word I'm looking for?
Financially, Hancock was a success. It further cementing Will Smith's status as the king of the Fourth of July blockbusters. But creatively, the movie is almost bankrupt. Things start out so well and with so much promise, but after a certain point, Hancock ends up becoming just another stupid, hollow movie with nothing to give besides a bunch of flickering images on a movie screen. The initial concept behind Hancock had boundless potential, and it could have been the best deconstruction of the superhero myth to come along since DC Comics first published Watchmen back in 1986. But all that potential goes to waste, and we end up with this. That's a real shame, too. So I can't really justify giving Hancock anything higher than two and a half stars out of the usual five. Really, it takes more than just a couple of big-name actors and an inspired concept to make a good movie.
Final Rating: **½