Hancock (2008) / Action-Comedy
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and language
Running time: 92 min
Cast: Will Smith, Jason Bateman, Charlize Theron, Jae Head, Eddie Marsan
Cameo: Thomas Lennon, Akiva Goldsman, Michael Mann, Nancy Grace
Director: Peter Berg
Screenplay: Vy Vincent Ngo, Vince Gilligan
Hancock is the sort of film that happens when too many people have their own ideas of the kind of movie that should be made from an original premise. At times, Hancock comes across as a comedy or, at its best, a satire on the superhero genre. Other times, it is an action movie or, at its best, a character study of a troubled crime fighter. At its worst, at least for the first hour, the film is crass, over-the-top, and can't find a tonal groove to settle into. That's when, all of a sudden, director Peter Berg (The Kingdom, Friday Night Lights) and screenwriters Ngo and Gilligan (Home Fries) determine to give the film an anchor -- a hook that sets up the thrilling climax where all of the conflicts come to a head. That's when Hancock finds that consistent groove that had been so elusive for the first hour -- by being a straight up bad film the rest of the way.
Like the film itself, the character of Hancock (Smith, I Am Legend) is a confusing figure for all of those who try to get to know him. He's a drunk and a misanthrope who just so happens to be a superhero in Los Angeles. However, more often than not, his solution to stopping the criminals only results in more anguish from the city. Thieves who steal money get nabbed, but not after Hancock costs the city countless more dollars by destroying roads and buildings in his attempt to thwart them. He'll save the life of one guy, putting the lives of many more in jeopardy in the process. Though the criminals see him as their worst nightmare, so do those who are saved by him, causing him to be known as one giant egotistical a-hole. Enter Ray Embrey (Bateman, Juno), a corporate PR wizard saved by Hancock who sees the potential in him to become the sort of hero everyone can admire rather than despise. Under his advice, Hancock turns himself in for the many violations he himself commits, and undergoes anger management to curb his impulse to lash out. But the cost of being the new nice guy in town does leave him vulnerable to the elements who know he will no longer cross the line -- or will he?
There are a few more developments that appear late in the film that would constitute major spoilers were I to reveal them outright. These efforts in the film take what would be passable (if less than impressive) fare and sink it by losing sight of what the film is supposed to be about. The finale is fraught with seriousness, and a great deal of violence that pushes the PG-13 status to the point where it almost seems unjustified. In the end, we do care about Hancock, so at least that part works, but the sacrificing of the integrity of the film through melodramatic, angst-ridden, life-and-death scenarios makes it all so overbearing without being properly set up. While Smith is an actor that has the depth to play funny and serious, a costar like Bateman struggles. This is especially evident during a moment when Ray's marriage (a marriage where we don't buy for a second these two characters could ever have feelings for one another, much less marriage) threatens to disintegrate due to a bombshell revelation that would have anyone else on Earth in the same situation reeling from the shock. And yet, the scene still tries for levity, with Ray behaving as if it's just another marital problem to sort through.
Throughout most of the film, we aren't given any clues as to who Hancock is except that he's an amnesiac who hasn't aged in at least 80 years. Mysteries are revealed later in the story, though, curiously, there is never any explanation as to how or why he gains his powers, or why he has such a contradictory need to save the world he hates so much. To give credit to the antihero concept itself is perhaps asking too much. We've seen Superman as a booze-swilling misanthrope already in Superman III, and to some extent, Spider-Man also had a darker edge after the symbiote alters his personality in Spider-Man 3. Without a full claim to originality, Hancock has to deliver on the comedy, action and spectacle just to earn our respect, and unfortunately, it just doesn't deliver enough in any of its many chosen directions to pay off as a good example of any particular genre.
Like most summer release superhero flicks, truck loads of money went into the special effects. Many of the special effects are ambitious and impressively conceived, such as people tossed through windows, a skewering of a car on a building spire, and the many scenes of Hancock flying or landing, leaving rubble in his wake. Yet, the rendering of these special effects looks completely unnatural, with blurry models, strange "camera angles", and awkward execution of just basic physics (all sense of gravity seems distorted). Berg's penchant for use of shaky camera work does little to help when so much CGI must be added to each constantly shifting frame.
Although Smith is a proven box office champion, his take on the surly wino just never is given the right amount of dark edge to be truly convincing. We know he's strong and angry, but we never quite feel like the vitriol he spouts is unleashed with the true disdain that the part calls for. Part of this comes from his previous squeaky clean image as a rapper and actor, but it is also the fact that Smith just doesn't look like he has any hatred in him to pull from. A little more Billy Bob Thornton from Bad Santa or Nicholson from As Good as It Gets and we'd have much more distinction when he turns things around, as we always sense that, even at his worst, he doesn't mean much harm.
Hancock, if concentrated down to the parts that work, would be enough to fill a fantastic trailer, but the film is mostly filler with out-of-place, angst-ridden scenes that bog down whatever energy, tenuous as it is, to a near standstill. Like the scene where Hancock stands and takes the full impact of an oncoming locomotive, the film that bears his name is a train wreck of its own making, as the filmmakers stand in the way of further momentum, sending everything into a screeching halt, with nothing but noise, mayhem and scenes of catastrophe to show for it. A smattering of funny lines and interesting concepts are enough to keep it buoyant until someone determined that characters this thinly defined are deserving of serious explorations into their psyche and emotional cores. They aren't, and we, the audience, don't deserve to have to agonize through films that can't define their own boundaries other than to be a collection of superficially amusing moments that don't merit the least bit of scrutiny through the heavy handed treatment that we must endure in last quarter desperation. Too much salt on this popcorn movie; escapist fare should always offer a way out.
©2008 Vince Leo