Sunday, July 06, 2008

Review - Hancock

John Hancock (Will Smith) is the superhero nobody loves. When crimes are taking place in Los Angeles, Hancock is usually found slumped on a bench, sleeping off a hangover, and he when he does finally rouse himself to save the day, the citizens of LA tend to wish he hadn't bothered. He smashes billboards and crashes into buildings as he flies erratically through the air, with a whisky bottle in his hand, and whenever he comes in for a landing, he leaves gaping holes in the road. Instead of being greeted by grateful applause from the public, he is simply booed and labelled an "asshole", and Hancock's latest destructive act – leaving a car full of crooks perilously perched on top of a skyscraper – seems to be the final straw, with the DA determined to put him in jail.

What we have here, essentially, is the opening section of
The Incredibles stretched to feature length. That film also explored the notion that superheroes might not be entirely welcome in normal society, that their abilities are more of a burden than a gift. The characters in Brad Bird's picture had to withdraw into a kind of superhero protection programme, living out a drab "normal" life, but in Hancock, the answer is simply good PR, with public relations man Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) offering the reluctant hero some tips on salvaging his tarnished reputation.

Hancock is the natural extension of the recent comic book theme in which the heroes have been brooding, angst-ridden figures, struggling to handle the great responsibility that their great power has thrust upon them. For John Hancock, this role is a thankless one, and in the picture's first half, director Peter Berg spends plenty of time showing us repeatedly how recklessly he deals with his role, and how much animosity his behaviour inspires. The screenplay develops a couple of running gags, like Hancock's slow-burning anger whenever he hears the word "asshole", or his repeated threat "If you don't move, your head is going up his ass", but hearing Hancock make that threat is funnier than seeing him carry it out; an example of the film's inability to know where to draw a line. While Hancock is occasionally funny, it's mostly just odd, with a weirdly uncertain tone that tries to blend crowd-pleasing explosive action with emotionally turbulent scenes of introspection, and Berg seems constantly unsure in his handling of the uneven action. The set-pieces are aggressively noisy but they lack impact, while he seems a little more comfortable adopting the handheld style he used in Friday Night Lights, for the quieter scenes in which Smith, Bateman and Charlize Theron (as Bateman's sceptical wife) are allowed room to simply act.

All of this begs one question – what kind of movie does
Hancock really want to be? It has the flashy effects required by this type of film, blending them awkwardly with downbeat dramatic scenes, and the whole concoction seems to be constantly straining at the limits of its PG-13 rating. About halfway through the picture, it inexplicably finds yet another new direction to fly into, and suddenly all bets are off. I won't reveal the nature of the plot's big twist for fear of spoiling viewers yet to see Hancock, but I'm also loathe to discuss it because I'm not sure I fully understand it. The choppy screenplay, by Vincent Ngo and Peter Gilligan, spends an age explaining the nature of this twist, but the more exposition they hurriedly cram into Hancock the more incomprehensible it becomes, and the less I cared. There's simply too much story squeezed into this 92-minute movie for any of it to be fully developed, and the film ends up snatching at plot points and leaving great narrative gaps in its wake.

Smith does his best to hold the film together. His performance is as good as it could have been under the circumstances, but he never feels like the right fit for the role; no matter how much this perennially wholesome actor glowers and grumbles as the misanthropic Hancock, he can't provide the edge of danger the character needs. His development into somebody willing to accept the responsibility he has to the public should feel like a real step forward, but instead it feels like the inevitable road that any Will Smith character is going to take. The real star here is Theron, who has been grimly authentic in most of her recent roles but who brings a radiant movie star quality to this one, particularly in the second half when it feels like she's the picture's sole guiding light. Alas, even she is subsumed by the finale, when all of
Hancock's misjudgements (Eddie Marsan is many things; a convincing villain in a superhero movie is not one of them) collide to catastrophic effect. At the height of the Summer filmgoing season, I guess we should be pleased to see a film like Hancock – not a sequel, not a remake, not based on a comic or TV show, not produced by Jerry Bruckheimer – but the film is so devoid of pleasure, and so wayward in its execution, it's impossible to find a positive angle on it. We can commend Hancock for not quite being the movie most of us would expect of a 4th of July Will Smith vehicle, but sometimes you just want a superhero movie to fly straight.