Director : Peter Berg
Screenplay : Vy Vincent Ngo & Vince Gilligan
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Will Smith (John Hancock), Charlize Theron (Mary Embrey), Jason Bateman (Ray Embrey), Jae Head (Aaron Embrey), Eddie Marsan (Red), David Mattey (Man Mountain), Maetrix Fitten (Matrix), Thomas Lennon (Mike), Johnny Galecki (Jeremy), Hayley Marie Norman (Hottie)
Despite starring Will Smith and being released on the Fourth of July weekend, the high point of the summer movie season that is usually reserved for a guaranteed blockbuster (often starring Will Smith) that no one will dare challenge, Hancock is not your typical superhero action extravaganza. While it is a high-concept movie through and through, its concept is to challenge, subvert, and generally play with all of our expectations when it comes to heroic stories about men in tights, with the first order of business being to get rid of the tights.
Superhero John Hancock (Smith) favors a much more relaxed wardrobe, consisting of baggy shorts, tee-shirts, a ski cap, a five-day beard, and huge sunglasses that are more for hiding his hung-over, bloodshot eyes than focusing any X-Ray vision. When the story opens, Hancock is drunk on a sidewalk bench, drawn out of his sloppy, inebriated slumber by a little kid who first alerts him to a TV screen showing a highway shootout before being the first of many characters (in fact, just about every character in the film) to call Hancock an a--hole (which he is). Like any dutiful superhero, Hancock flies off to the rescue, the only problem being that he tends to create as much havoc and destruction as he is ostensibly trying to prevent. His take-offs and landings result in massive potholes, and his erratic, drunken flying destroys highway signs and takes out chunks of buildings. Not surprisingly, his popularity is abysmal.
Thus, Hancock makes the perfect pet project for Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), a public relations guru with a heart of gold who genuinely wants to change the world for the better. He sees in Hancock potential for both image rehabilitation and a sense of do-gooderism that we take for granted in most superheroes (even the moodiest and most conflicted of comic book heroes usually wants to do the right thing; Hancock just doesn’t seem to care). This is why Ray encourages Hancock to submit to a prison sentence for destruction of public property, which functions as a public apology and a chance for Hancock to spend some quality time thinking about his bad attitude, alcoholic rages, and general misanthropy. Ray’s wife, Mary (Charlize Theron), is rather skeptical about this endeavor, although their soccer-playing 10-year-old son Aaron (Jae Head) has just the right mixture of enthusiasm and naïveté needed to believe in Hancock’s heroism.
For its first half, Hancock is essentially a broad comedy, playing against our expectations of what constitutes superheroics and dragging our culture’s obsessive pop-culture-infused paring of superhuman physical prowess and moral goodness down to earth. Of course, because Hancock is played by Will Smith, arguably the most popular and genuinely likeable (not to mention absolutely bankable) star Hollywood currently has, his character is never quite the despicable cad he’s meant to be. As written by Vy Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan, Hancock is definitely the a--hole everyone accuses him of being, but Smith, despite his constant scowl and grumpy demeanor, can’t help but exude a certain level of charm that foreshadows his character’s redemption a little too brightly.
The film’s second half hinges on a sudden and (for this viewer, anyway) utterly unexpected plot shift in which character revelation leads to seismic narrative shifts. Suffice it to say that this shift is quite brilliant in the way it rears up out of nowhere, but also quite troubling in the confusing light it sheds on Hancock’s otherwise obscure backstory (in one of the film’s most blatant disregards for typical superhero narratives, we don’t learn anything about who Hancock is or where he came from until deep into the story). The clearly and carefully premeditated nature of the story development belies some of the movie’s sloppier elements, including many of the special effects, especially those depicting Hancock flying, which are so patently phony that it made me wonder if they were intentionally so.
In the film’s contentious second half, issues of immortality and the persistent ugliness of human nature come into play, albeit wrapped in a series of action setpieces that director Peter Berg (The Kingdom) stages with a gritty, jittery style that plays as direct confrontation to the smooth mechanics of most summer blockbusters. Berg’s handheld aesthetics are the movie’s most surprising subversion, particularly in its climactic showdown in a hospital that forgoes whiz-bang pyrotechnics in favor of pain, melodrama, and blood. It genuinely had me thinking, How did they get away with this? For all its subversions, though, Hancock ultimately plays by the most important Hollywood rules, delivering a relatively satisfying ending that leaves just enough of an opening to warrant a sequel if the box office receipts are right.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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