by Mel Valentin
Less than nine months after Will Smith saved the world from a mutated virus (or rather a character he played saved the world), actor Will Smith is back in "Hancock," this time playing a dissolute, destitute, bad-tempered superhero, John Hancock. Directed by Peter Berg ("The Kingdom," "Friday Night Lights," "The Rundown," "Very Bad Things") and written by Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan, "Hancock" resembles a certain spandex-loving superhero who first made an appearance seventy years ago, Superman, with a backstory inspired by Jack Kirby’s work for DC and Marvel Comics in the 1970s (saying more would involve spoilers, unfortunately). An often awkward mix of broad comedy, straight drama, and superhero action, "Hancock" is definitely flawed, but it benefits from a continuity-free storyline, engaging turns from a talented cast (no surprise there), and the presence of thematic depth (definitely a surprise).When we first meet Hancock, he’s sleeping off last night’s alcohol on a park bench, oblivious to the disapproval of passersby. After being awakened to a car chase involving the police and an Asian gang equipped with machine guns, Hancock flies to aid the police, but not before destroying massive amounts of public and private property. Booed by a gathering crowd, Hancock escapes to a rundown bar. Later, he saves idealistic public relations executive, Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), from an oncoming train, again causing massive amounts of damage. Ray invites Hancock home for dinner, ostensibly to repay Hancock for saving his life (if not his car).
"The best superhero flick since....well, since Iron Man."
Ray sees redeeming Hancock in the eyes of the general public as a means toward an end: getting corporations onboard with a worldwide giving campaign. While Ray’s son, Aaron (Jae Head), is happy to have a superhero around the house, Ray’s wife and Aaron’s stepmother, Mary (Charlize Theron), doesn’t seem so pleased. Ray convinces Hancock that the public will change how they see him if he disappears for a short time. Ray does more, though. He convinces Hancock to turn himself in to the authorities and serve some jail time for all the damage he’s done. If the plan works, the public will receive Hancock with open arms. If it doesn’t, Hancock can simply fly away (since he’s in jail by his own volition).
Although Hancock seems to be riding the wave of superhero/comic book adaptations, Vincent Ngo originally wrote his screenplay twelve years ago as an “original” work (i.e., not based directly on characters from the DC or Marvel Comics’ universes). With a later assist from Vincent Gilligan (best known for his contributions as a writer for The X-Files), Ngo didn’t stray far from superhero archetypes, specifically Superman, giving Hancock invulnerability, super-strength, and flying (he can go supersonic). Hancock doesn’t have x-ray vision and he can’t shoot red laser beams from his eyes, but he does have a Kryptonite-like weakness (what that is, however, is best left for moviegoers to discover). Since Hancock starts in media res, Ngo and Gilligan leave Hancock’s origins unclear and when they do offer an explanation, it remains incomplete.
That’s all good if you’re a superhero/comic book fan, but what about everyone else? Well, if you’re a Will Smith fan, there’s not much to dislike here. His pre-makeover superhero is rude, crude, and vulgar. He’s also desperately lost, making him unsympathetic, but not unredeemable. Where Hancock runs into trouble, though, is in the tonal shift from broad comedy to serious drama (with superhero-flavored action, of course). Once Hancock goes into recovery mode, the comedy in Hancock goes into hibernation (minus the occasional injection of situational humor). Besides the tonal shift, some moviegoers won’t buy into the second act revelation or the lack of a villain or supervillain on Hancock’s level. Then too, the visual effects leave something to be desired. They range from near excellent to dodgy, often in the same scene.Still, besides the cast and the premise, "Hancock" has a surprising amount of depth, both in how it develops the central character and the world he lives in (much like our own) and, again, not to give away spoilers, in the major revelation that plays out like a plea for tolerance, racial and otherwise. That might not be what moviegoers are looking forward to seeing this busy summer season, but if they give "Hancock" a chance (and Will Smith’s name above the marquee practically guarantees that), they’ll find themselves sitting through one of the better takes on superheroes since…well, since "Iron Man" came out in early May.
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originally posted: 07/02/08 14:15:42