Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jul 10, 2008 9:54 am 
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Tarnishing the image

John Hancock (Will Smith), known universally as Hancock, is an alcoholic bum. But wait! He's a superhero. He can fly, he is super-powerful, he can catch bad guys. Let's put it this way: Hancock is a superhero in need of a recovery program. Besides his drinking he has rage issues. And he just isn't very nice. He also is very, very messy. In the course of one of his rescue missions he usually causes millions of dollars in unnecessary damage. The media is full of complaints about all this.

And that's where PR man Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) comes in. They meet when Hancock saves Ray from being run over in his car by a train (of course Hancock also wrecks the train and smashes up a lot of vehicles caught in the surrounding traffic jam). Hancock takes Ray home (with his messed up car, through the air) and gets to know Ray's wife Mary (Charlize Theron) and little boy Aaron (Jae Head). Superheros do eat, and Hancock develops an instant jones for Mary's "spaghetti madness" dinners.

The upshot of this rather unusual encounter determines the rest of the movie. Ray sets to work to remake Hancock's image and his behavior. At Ray's urging Hancock turns himself in to do prison time for all the laws he has broken (it seems superheroes can be subject to the law as well as the pleasures of pasta). In the clink, Hancock's thrown in with some pretty rough characters. He goes to meetings where men share about their problems but time after time he just says "pass" when it comes to him.

Eventually Hancock cleans up his act in more ways than one. Released because he's needed by the city, he learns to say "Good job" to overwhelmed cops he's helping, shaves, gets a haircut, washes, cuts down on the booze, and wears a nice tight leather superman outfit Ray has provided. Maybe the "good jobs" are the most important pert.

Ray's success with Hancock leads the corporations to get back in touch with Ray about his pet scheme to have them give away billions to end disease and poverty in return for sporting a giant heart symbol that will make people love them. Meanwhile a rather unusual relationship is developing between Hancock and Mary. But we can't talk about that because it's meant to be a surprise. It is a surprise. It's also ridiculously far-fetched and elaborate and requires pages of expository dialogue. And that's where Hancock, which was fading once Hancock turned nice, fizzles out. The final rounds of CGI and derring-do and bangs and smashes are redundant, because they don't develop Hancock's initial premise any more.

The interest of that premise was that perfection is boring. The gods of the ancient Greeks had lots of imperfections, and a superman who sleeps on a city bench in a grungy watch cap with an eagle on it, grumpy and reeking of alcohol, is intriguing. It's also potentially a little bit repulsive, especially given Hancock's foul language. A little human weakness is appealing, but we don't really want our heroes to be quite such a mess, and there's a mean and sadistic streak to Hancock that is troubling.

The character of Ray helps to counteract this. Jason Bateman, a guy who has done a lot of TV and is best known for his role in "Arrested Development," has a resilient nice-guy quality and at times Ray seems to be the main character and Hancock just his project. But should that be? We turn away from Hancock because his character is skewed too far to begin with. Nonetheless the movie deserves credit for taking the superhero idea in a whole new direction, and so does Will Smith for running with it, and the equally charismatic Theron for tagging along.

Once Hancock gets all cleaned up and people start to like him we realize this isn't enough, and so did the writers. Unfortunately where they go from there was boring and comes from a more conventional and hokey kind of superhero movie. We want to know more about Hancock--we want to know what has become of his humanness--and instead we're getting lectured about angels and millennia.

Will Smith is a superstar--never mind the hero part--and people are flocking to see this movie because of him. But Hancock coats him with a layer of meanness and grumpiness that keeps the Will Smith charisma from coming out the way it does in his best performances, most recently and notably in The Pursuit of Happyness and I Am Legend. And unfortunately Peter Berg, whose last outing was the ham-handed The Kingdom, has yet to show much finesse as a director. It's hard to tell in the end how much of the messiness is due to the out-of-whack superhero and how much is just a lack of directorial restraint. And yet you've got to admire both Berg and Smith for attempting to take an old theme in a new direction.

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