John Hancock: “Call me an asshole one more time.”
It isn’t fair to write a film off in the first few minutes but you can sometimes get a pretty good sense as to what you’re in store for from the way the film introduces itself. The film opens on an L.A. freeway, where four punks are being chased in their van by countless police cruisers while they fire their semi-automatic weapons into the air. Where’s Spider-Man when you need him? (Right, I forgot – Spidey’s a New Yorker.) Cut to a passed out bum on a park bench. Who is this man? Of course, we know it’s our hero, Hancock (Will Smith), because we know a thing or two about the film before sitting down to watch it. Director Peter Berg takes this for granted though and it soon becomes apparent that convention and presumption will drive this unconventional tale. In “Hancock”, Berg and Smith team up with writers Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan to debunk superhero iconography as well as the genre itself. The goal, and a noble and exciting one it is, is to rip the superhero out of the sky, strip him of his glory and send him hurdling toward the earth. Only Hancock is pulled down to an earth that is an awful lot more like a movie than the world I know.
It wouldn’t be so terrible to set this enormous Hollywood action film in typical scenarios if Berg weren’t trying so hard to give the film a decidedly un-Hollywood look. The aesthetic is often shaky and unstill, crossing back and forth between odd close-ups and frames finding their focus. Berg seems bent on giving “Hancock” a gritty, guerilla filmmaking tone but the erratic style is at odds with the predictability of the plot. The borrowed independent style works in its original context because independent films are, ordinarily, about something deeper. Removing the gloss from a Hollywood feature only allows the viewer to see how little there is underneath it all. In HANCOCK’s case, the man beneath the lacking luster is a reluctant hero who would rather waste his days drunk in a dive than diving into the action itself to save the day. There is some loose discourse on realizing your destiny but little else. Again reluctantly, Hancock agrees to some help from a struggling public relations person (Jason Bateman) and is set on the path to making the most of his life and abilities. Hancock is such a complex character (lonely, disinterested, depressed) that it would seem ripe with possibility but this is mostly squandered in favor of half funny humour and sometimes hokey special effects that it feels at times like a over produced Nike ad.
Luckily for “Hancock”, the film is still somewhat enjoyable thanks to the strong performances of all its leads. Smith continues his streak for picking complicated characters with broad appeal and he also continues his streak of pulling them off. After a heartbreaking turn that pushed his dramatic abilities in “The Pursuit of Happyness” and his commanding yet vulnerable turn that pushed his presence in “I Am Legend”, Smith plays a character we don’t ordinarily see him as. His impossible-not-to-like face is covered in stubble and his physique is hidden by baggy, dirty clothes but his eyes are what give away his disenfranchised soul that shows his hurt for being shunned by society and disinterest in placating to that same society. Smith is joined by the modern master of comedic timing, Bateman and Charlize Theron, as Bateman’s wife, who is simultaneously frightened and intimidating. This trio of talent is “Hancock”’s salvation. Their grasp of their characters in unfailing and they pull the elements of the film together despite how flimsy the elements are to begin with.
“Hancock” is occasionally astounding but mostly mundane. Above all, it is a disappointment. This original premise has been sloppily slapped together and most of its potential was squandered in the process. It didn’t show me that superheroes are people too. If anything, it just made me miss the real deal. If the goal was to truly bring the superhero down to earth, then there was still a long, long way to go before this guy would have touched the ground.