Man of Steel. Caped Crusader. Defender of Justice. These are all titles that have been affixed to various superheroes over the years. The titular superhero of Hancock has a very different label: Asshole. The word is used again and again to describe him in the film, and for good reason. Hancock (Will Smith) fights crime, all right, but he's also a surly drunk whose efforts tend to rack up millions in unnecessary damages to city property. The citizens of Los Angeles eventually decide that the guy is more trouble than he's worth. When we first meet him, Hancock takes out a gang of hoodlums leading police on a high-speed car chase, incurring $9 million in damages and leaving a car impaled atop the Capitol Records building. Iron Man never had to deal with this crap.
Hancock's luck changes when he saves the life of Ray Embery (Jason Bateman). Although he again makes a mess of things - in this case, the public rail system - Ray is grateful and wants to pay Hancock back. Since he's a public relations man, he offers to rehabilitate the hero's image. Step one is encouraging Hancock to do some prison time to make up for all the damage he's caused. This goes over like a lead balloon, but Hancock eventually agrees once Ray convinces him that he needs to show the public that he's taking responsibility and cleaning up his act. Step two involves giving up the booze, wearing an appropriate costume, and working with authorities rather than against them.
The plan is difficult for the resistant Hancock, but he sticks with it, in part so as not to disappoint Ray's young son, who idolizes him. However, Ray's wife Mary (Charlize Theron) is not down with the plan at all. She thinks her husband would be better off staying far, far away from Hancock, for reasons that become clear only as the film goes on. Eventually, the rehab program is complete, and Hancock is ready to be a proper superhero, but of course, evil is waiting for him.
For me, Hancock falls into the same category as movies like Ghostbusters and Men in Black: supernatural action/comedies that have ingeniously irresistible premises. The thing that keeps Hancock from being as good as those other two is that certain plot elements could have been developed more than they are. The early scenes show us Hancock as a boozy bum, but when Ray rehabilitates him, it happens pretty quickly. I'd like to have seen more scenes showing how the superhero knocks down his defensive walls and learns to be a (slightly) better person. Some more exposition there would have helped the film transition more smoothly to its third act, in which the character learns some secrets about himself and his origins. At times, the story feels like it's meandering slightly because not enough groundwork is laid for some of the big revelations. At just 95 minutes, there was room for the movie to expound on its ideas a little more.
And yet, there's enough really good stuff here that Hancock works in spite of that flaw. What I loved most about it was the wicked sense of humor. Scenes of a drunken, disheveled hero flying around Los Angeles, smashing into road signs, and telling the local citizens to go perform rude sexual acts upon themselves are perversely funny. There are also big laughs in the way Hancock poorly handles simple situations, like the scene where he confronts the kid who has been bullying Ray's son. His solution: throw the punk into outer space. Perhaps the funniest bit - alluded to in the previews - has him getting the edge on a couple of prisoners who threaten him while in the clink. The joke is sick, but also hilarious. In superhero movie after superhero movie, we've seen noble do-gooders who always make the right choices, and understanding cities willing to foot the bill for destruction caused in the name of fighting evil. Hancock flips those concepts on their ear, and I found that to be a brilliant idea.
Will Smith turns in yet another terrific performance in the title role. He's the biggest movie star in the world, but does he get the credit he deserves as an actor? Eschewing vanity, Smith allows himself to be less-than-sympathetic. In fact, he seems to be enjoying the chance to play against type. Every rude or drunken comment made by Hancock is delivered with such flair that you can't stop watching him even in his least generous moments. Because Smith plays him so well, it's easy to root for the guy to change. Thankfully - and this isn't giving anything away - the movie never sanctifies him. He becomes a better guy through Ray's efforts, but he still isn't perfect.
Jason Bateman is also good, adding to his recent string of solid work. Same goes for Charlize Theron, who is really, really strong here. Her character reveals depths that we don't initially imagine, and Theron plays all of Mary's complicated emotions with excellence.
Director Peter Berg also made The Rundown and Friday Night Lights. He knows how to bring visual style to a movie and also how to creatively stage the action. Hancock needs those things and benefits from having them. While by no means a perfect film, I still found a lot to enjoy here. There have been at least two dozen superhero movies in the last six or seven years. It's kind of nice to see one that looks at things from the other side of the coin. For Hancock, saving other people is easy; saving himself in another matter altogether.
( out of four)
Hancock is rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence and language. The running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: Hancock
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