Directed by: Peter Berg (The Kingdom)
Starring: Will Smith, Charlize Theron, Jason Bateman, Jae Head, Eddie Marsan
If it were possible for a movie to be tone deaf, Peter Berg’s Hancock would be that movie. Berg and screenwriters Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan (both from TV) have taken a surefire concept and turned it into a damp squib. And since star Will Smith is also on the roster of producers, it seems likely he had a hand in this, too. The idea of a drunken, foulmouthed (PG-13 level), shabbily dressed superhero with an attitude problem being reshaped for public consumption by a publicist may sound a little like 1970s National Lampoon stuff, but it’s pretty fresh and irreverent as concerns Hollywood movies (maybe it owes something to Robert Altman’s spinach-hating Popeye). Unfortunately, the movie seems to be in a race to see which it can kill off first: the freshness or the irreverence.
The problem—apart from Berg’s addiction to the Michael Bay shaky close-up cam—is that no one involved had a clue what to do with the concept. After establishing the basic premise of Will Smith’s Hancock and bringing in Jason Bateman as the world’s most naive PR man (Bateman plays the entire movie like a refugee from an Up With People touring company), the movie becomes more desperate than funny. It then virtually gives up even trying to be funny and keeps tripping over its own feet by creating an ill-conceived mythos the movie only sticks to when the notion suits the plot. The phony mythos turns into equally spurious pathos that plays like bathos because not one iota of the sentiment or sympathy has been earned.
If that’s not enough, the whole thing is topped off with the lamest bad guy ever to disgrace the screen. Batman has the Joker. Superman has Lex Luthor. The X-Men have Magneto. Hancock has Red (Eddie Marsan, Miami Vice), a far from arch-villain, with simple vengeance on his mind. Overlooking the fact that Red seems to have been arrested, tried, convicted and sent to the big house in the matter of only a few days, he’s simply not interesting. The script seems to recognize this, and affords him a degree in psychology in the hopes that he may more believably explain how he bamboozled a couple of disgruntled goons into functioning (rather badly) as his bargain-basement henchmen. It doesn’t help. Red doesn’t even know his opponent’s Achilles’ heel; he merely happens to show up at the right time to take advantage of it.
There are signs of trouble even before Hancock runs aground. The opening scenes look better than they are simply by comparison with the later ones. Smith is OK in the title role, though I’m inclined to agree with my colleague Justin Souther that it’s a role better suited to Chris Rock’s comedic style. Rock would certainly seem more at home in the scene where Hancock literally shoves one bad guy’s head up another bad guy’s posterior. (Some verbal concepts just don’t work well when literalized.) Still, the role has been clearly tailored to Smith, which is to say, we get the obligatory “Will Smith is not gay” moment. Here he gets to sneer at comic-book superheroes’ costumes as looking “homo.” (We get it, Will, you’re not gay. But if you keep telling us you’re not, we might get suspicious.)
Smith’s most ardent admirers will likely cut the film more slack than I have. But even the few admirers I’ve spoken to admit to being disappointed by Hancock. The tonal shifts are just too jarring. The big “surprise” revelation is telegraphed the first moment that Hancock and one other character meet. The film’s last scenes, which attempt to come across as pure suspense drama, suffer from poor execution and the script’s insistence of playing fast and loose with the dictates of the mythology it put into place a few scenes earlier. And finally, the feel-good ending smacks of far more sap than substance. The worst part about all of this is that if Hancock underperforms, we’ll likely be looking down the barrel of a Bad Boys 3. Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence and language.