Hancock saves the day, bottle in hand
The most original comic book movie in years doesn’t come from a comic book.
Hancock is definitely a superhero story, make no mistake, but it’s not the kind you’re used to seeing. Its title character doesn’t wear tights or a mask, he doesn’t have a secret identity, and his demeanor is more Redd Foxx than Green Lantern. But he can fly – even drunk, which comes in handy – and he is invulnerable to bullets. He’s also all alone in the spotlight, which means that when the world needs saving, its choices are limited.
Mr. Fourth of July, Will Smith, plays Hancock, a besotted, raggedy-ass misanthrope of a superhero who fights crime with a raging hangover. It’s a fun role, and Smith plays him with evident joy, milking every last irritated wince for all it’s worth. He’s in top form from the first second we see him, passed out on a sidewalk bench in the middle of the afternoon. Hancock is roused to save the day, which he does, but it’s clear once the newsreels start rolling and the mayor starts crying foul about damages to the city: This is one Superman with an image problem.
That changes when Hancock saves Ray (Jason Bateman) from being flattened by a train. Ray, a consultant with a heart of gold, makes a living giving fuzzy makeovers to amoral corporate giants. Out of gratitude, he takes Hancock on as a pet project, much to the dismay of his overly-cautious wife Mary (Charlize Theron). Ray nevertheless goes to work cleaning up Hancock’s act, and you won’t be surprised to learn that the hero goes through a metamorphosis under the guidance of his first and only real friend.
Just when you’re comfortable with the film’s direction, however, it throws a big-time curveball. I won’t spoil anything here, but suffice it to say it’s the kind of left turn that makes you reexamine just what kind of movie you’re watching.
Hancock, directed by Peter Berg, is great for the same reason Berg’s “Friday Night Lights” TV series is great – namely, because it has the guts to thumb its nose at your preconceived notions. Much like “FNL” is only superficially about football, Hancock is only superficially about a guy who fights crime. This, by itself, is a big gamble, one that pays dividends.
Kudos to Berg and screenwriters Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan for taking a chance and really trying to do something unexpected with their story. Plot twists of the kind this film turns on can be polarizing; as such, some viewers who don’t like having their heads messed with might have a strong negative reaction to the film’s second half.
Me, I just threw my hands up and let Berg take the wheel. I was not disappointed with where he took me.
Nor was I surprised. Rocky second season aside, “Friday Night Lights” remains my favorite TV show, largely thanks to Berg’s gift for telling dramatic stories with humanity and humor. Even when he’s dealing with melodrama, he’s generally a subtle storyteller and subtler humorist, which I think goes a long way toward explaining this film’s partly-hostile reception. This isn’t the bombastic, silly romp that months of Ludacris-scored trailers have promised you. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s also heavier than you might expect.
Hancock actually plays out as high-dollar meditation on loneliness. It’s also a film that speculates about how a maddeningly petty culture would actually respond to a man who is more powerful than a locomotive. Its not-unreasonable opinion: We’d probably drive him to drink. There are some moments that don’t entirely work – the ending is a bit cheesy, and a running gag about heads getting shoved up asses (I shudder even thinking about it) is beneath the rest of the material.
But Hancock also succeeds for what it isn’t: Namely, a preexisting superhero franchise with a built-in fan base to please. With no canon stretching back into the mid-20th century, the filmmakers are free to do whatever they want with this character. Wisely, they don’t overburden him with a long, pointless origin story (okay, there’s a bit of a pointless origin story in the second half, but it’s at least mercifully vague). One of the great things about Hancock is that he comes to you with very little baggage.
You should do the film the same favor. Don’t go expecting fluff, or a Men In Black-style send-up. Your reward will be an exciting summertime film filled with great performances, smart writing and a spirit of adventure lacking in most of this year’s popcorn fare.
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