Hancock is a fun twist on the superhero genre… for about an hour. Then an ill-conceived twist changes the direction and tone of the movie, tainting the good times had before it.
Anything positive to be said about the summer blockbuster happens in the first 60 minutes, where all the material for the trailers and marketing was carefully selected.
The first act sets up the initial premise; a crude, drunken bum named Hancock (Will Smith) with unexplained super powers reluctantly stopping crimes in Los Angeles, sometimes causing more damage in the process. The opening sequence has Smith thwarting an armed high-speed chase by dropping in on their SUV before gouging the highway with a Flintstones stop and smashing the car into various buildings. The vast majority of citizens hate him, caring about the cost of his heroics instead of their unappreciated safety.
Will Smith is very funny in this first half. He isn’t the “Big Willie Style” persona of clean-cut one-liners he started his career on. His “I won’t cuss in my music” mentality must not carry over to movies either. His foul-mouthed character makes no apologies for being politically incorrect and always intoxicated. A nagging woman says she can smell the alcohol on him, to which he replies, “That’s because I’ve been drinking, bitch!”
One fateful day, Hancock arrives just in time to save Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) from a train crossing. To show his gratitude, Embrey offers him the only services he knows: public relations. He convinces Hancock to embark on a campaign to improve his image, while teaching him how to “interface with the public.”
But humorous tweaks of his landing technique and polite responses aren’t enough. Hancock decides to accept jail time for past mistakes, a PR attempt to make people miss him. It’s a bold move and a subtle social commentary about real celebrities constantly thwarting legal responsibility. The far-fetched concept is easy to go with as the reinvention of Hancock to a beloved hero accompanies the re-imagining of the traditional comic book superhero.
The problem with an invincible character like Superman has always been how to humanize him; to make him vulnerable and relatable. Hancock, like the Man of Steel, can’t be hurt by anything. But the “kryptonite” twist the writers took to accomplish that goal in this movie is unbelievable and uninspired.
I won’t give away the pivotal shift in the movie, but after Hancock returns to his now adoring public as an improved man, the movie suffers from his polished image. The fresh anti-hero angle has been straightened into a traditional comic book story with a ridiculous take on Mrs. Embrey (Charlize Theron) and a lame, minor villain. An off-beat comedy becomes an intense struggle with his unknown past, a messy transition to a completely uninteresting second plot line.
On top of that, Peter Berg was the wrong writer/director for this movie. Usually an action director, the quality comedy was too often set aside so he could get his poorly computer-generated battle sequences on screen. Plus almost every shot is an extreme close-up, a shaky, claustrophobic feel for even the quiet conversations. A dinner scene between the three main characters about his origins had a distracting amount of heads blocking the camera. Smith is emotionally telling what he knows about himself and Bateman’s skull is taking up two-thirds of the frame. No exaggeration.