Another big superhero movie hits theaters this week, but a few things separate it from the rest that have come out recently.
For one, Hancock is not based on a pre-existing character but is, believe it or not, completely original. Next, while most superhero movies cast somewhat lesser-known character actors, this one features a mega-star, Will Smith. Finally, the character he plays, Hancock, is, well, let’s just say he’s one of the more flawed superheroes out there. Smith’s Hancock could be described as Bad Santa and Superman: foul-mouthed (warning to parents: very foul-mouthed) and perpetually boozed up but also able to fly and bend steel.
The only superhero in the world, he lives in Los Angeles, mostly hanging out, though he occasionally tries to lend a (drunken) hand – and often screws up big time. In trying to stop a van-full of gun-toting punks, for example, he ends up destroying a highway and impaling their vehicle atop the Capitol Records building. Hancock, we see, has a good heart but is as much a menace as a hero. Things begin to turn around one day when he saves a PR guy from a runaway train. Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) decides to try to help turn Hancock’s image around, getting him to work on controlling his powers, being friendlier, and surrendering himself for jail time for the damage he’s caused. The upshot, Ray predicts, will be that crime will skyrocket and Hancock can come in and save the day.
The movie’s pluses are apparent from the beginning, starting with Smith, who brings his A-game here, imbuing his could-give-a-rat’s-ass superhero with a sense of brooding loneliness. Thankfully, his is not the only great performance, as Bateman, in full mensch mode, keeps the viewer grounded – his everyman view and plain humility spar nicely with Hancock’s brusqueness. Charlize Theron, as Ray’s wife, brings some welcome dramatic presence and humor to the movie when needed.
And the positives keep on coming: fun action scenes, a great running joke (call Hancock a loser or asshole, and he’ll give you the thrill of your life), his creative style of cussing out random people and kids (which never got old for me), and some killer sight gags. Seeing an audience’s reaction to the scene in which Hancock makes two tough prisoners get “close” to each other may be worth the ticket price all by itself.
Unfortunately, the story isn’t nearly as engaging as the set-up. For the first hour or so, the film moves along quickly, and the jokes are almost uniformly golden. It starts to bog down, however, when it strives for seriousness, making everything that comes after feel kind of forced. And although Hancock’s main antagonist is really himself, director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, The Kingdom, The Rundown) must have felt compelled to give the hero some real villains. Too bad they’re far from threatening.
While the director is nice enough to explain the nature of Hancock’s powers, including his interesting weakness, he doesn’t really dig much deeper into the hero’s mythos, unlike the best sci-fi/fantasy comedies (Ghostbusters, Men in Black). Also, can we get a moratorium on the shakeycam? Giving viewers motion sickness does not palliate boredom. Despite the movie’s lack of depth, the good far outweighs the bad and makes Hancock a pretty damn good time.