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It would figure that in this summer of heroes - comic book and otherwise - that we’d have to see at least one tale about someone who wasn’t all that big on the whole super powers thing. Such is the idea behind Hancock, the superhero that hates being a superhero.

In the middle of a sunny Los Angeles day there is terror afoot, a ruthless gang of thugs is waging war against the cops and anyone else with the temerity to get in their way, spraying automatic gunfire from the windows of their speeding vehicle. The commotion round the city goes utterly unnoticed by a hobo sleeping on bench. It is only after a small child rudely awakens him and goads him to jump into the fray do we get any inkling that this vagrant isn’t what he appears to be. Blasting off his bench at supersonic speed, the homeless man drunkenly, aimlessly crashes into anything in his way breaking floors of skyscraper windows and knocking over freeway signs in search of his quarry. The poor schmoes inside the car are unaware that their awesome firepower will simply ricochet off this disheveled avenger and their attempts to brave him out only result in their car being impaled on the pointed needle of the Capitol Records building with the criminals dangling inside it. Our “hero” doesn’t exactly work with a soft touch. Whatever will get him back to his bench and bottle quickest is what’s going to work for him, but not so much for the fine citizens of Los Angeles who view Hancock as more problem than cure, resenting the monumental financial tolls of his day-saving damages. The only Los Angeleno happy to see Hancock is failing publicist Ray, who unwisely parks his car on the tracks of an oncoming train. True to his careless nature, Hancock rescues Ray, but not before destroying Ray’s car, some other peoples’ vehicles and the train in question. Grateful to Hancock for saving his life, Ray turns an angry mob from their anti-Hancock wrath and discovers his next project, the rehabilitation of Hancock. Though it involves some jail time, a very snug leather uniform and an appetite to eat crow, Hancock comes to terms with how poorly he’s seen by those around him and agrees to Ray’s experiment. Will the changes come in time to convince a dubious public or even Ray’s wary, suspicious wife?

Hancock as a film suffers from a solid case of schizophrenia. The entire premise of a cantankerous, uncaring anti-hero would have been a refreshing response to the gung-ho, benevolence of the saviours that have paraded past movie audiences. The first half of the film, where we see just how haphazard Hancock’s methods are is a hoot. Some YouTube video of a crispy Hancock pushing some kids out of the way of an ice cream truck in burned tattered rags with one butt cheek hanging out trying to cool off after a fire rescue is hilarious. His correction of the nasty ways of a schoolyard bully is cheer-worthy. Hancock’s unrepentant use of foul language to get his point across and utter lack of manners strikes one as more realistic than the behaviour of some undercover superheroes whose disguises make them into pushovers on the down-low. Made to answer for the all the public destruction, Hancock goes to jail because he decides to, not because anyone can force him. His eventual embrace of the responsibility of being a higher being among average men is fascinating.

What’s not so fascinating is the deus ex machina origin story that involves Hancock’s discovery that he’s not the only one of his kind, as he’d believed. There is one other person who knows exactly who and what Hancock is and there is a whole lotta suspended belief in the theatre to get us to go with the coincidence of their encounter and the holes in the story once it’s revealed. There is also the problem of the big bad. Every superhero story, even about someone who doesn’t want to be one requires an impressive villain. Hancock’s nemeses are just a couple of bank robbers and thugs he put away who have nothing more than some guns to threaten him with. No plan for world domination, no cool gadgets, no style, finesse or personality. What a bore.

That’s the whole problem with Hancock, where’s the excitement? Where’s the thrills? Presenting more like a backhanded revision of a superhero movie, perhaps Hancock is not meant to be a rock-em, sock-em, zap, pow event like Iron Man, but I’m sure it’s not meant to be lackluster and droning, either.  With perhaps the exception of Hancock carelessly hurling a beached whale into the sea, its fall cushioned by a passing sailboat; and a jail scene where a couple of inmates really should’ve have taken Hancock’s threat about rearranging certain body parts more seriously, there are really no special effect moments that are a wow. Mostly we see Hancock’s concrete-cracking take-offs and landings, but not much else besides, which is fine when the acerbic vagrant reels off some acidly funny lines. Unfortunately, the laughs stop dead for the last act and an unconvincing and sudden ill-placed soap opera takes over the film. There are some heroic CGI moments during Hancock’s big showdown with his “other”, but they are murky and unremarkable, very much like the plot twist.

What would Hancock have been without the pure charm of its star, Will Smith? Only he could’ve turned the crusty, cranky hobo into someone to root for. Honestly, even covered in filth, I can’t imagine too many Los Angeles woman (- or man) who would allow him to sleep rough on a bench. Reigning action king Smith still has the chops and cred to pull off the scabby, foul-mouthed bum, and is perfectly convincing when Hancock has his ill-fitting change of heart. I wish there had been more back and forth between Smith and Jason Bateman, whose breezy line deliveries as the idealistic publicist was a wonderful counteract to the grouchy mumbles of Smith’s drunken hobo. If there’s anything past the first act of the film to praise it’s the loose, wry chemistry between Smith and Bateman. Charlize Theron played well off both men as Ray’s supportive wife whose guarded mistrust of Hancock may not be just a bad hunch.

While Hancock is far from a total failure, I wonder what the result would have been had director Peter Berg been able decide what he wanted his movie to be: Should it have been a satire of the superhero genre and the expectations the public has of those characters, or should it have been a dramatic, straight narrative with a couple of laughs thrown in? Trying to take six of one and a half dozen of the other has resulted in making Hancock a wildly uneven ho-hum mess that really should’ve have been much more.

 

~ Mighty Ganesha

July 2nd, 2008

 

 

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(Courtesy of  Columbia Pictures)