HANCOCK j
½ 

2008, PG-13, 92 mins.

John Hancock:  Will Smith / Mary Embrey Charlize Theron / Ray Embrey Jason Bateman / Aaron Embrey Jae Head / Red Eddie Marsan / Man Mountain David Mattey

Directed by Peter Berg / Written by Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan

 

I will find it next-to-impossible to discuss my overt criticisms of 'HANCOCK' without revealing many of the would-be surprising twists and turns in the film's plot.  Please consider this full-length review one with massive spoilers.  

Will Smith stars in Sony Pictures' HancockHANCOCK may be the only super hero film that I can ever recall watching that has the following exchange:  Just after saving someone’s life, a innocent bystander walks up to the hero and states, “Your breath smells like alcohol” to which the hero matter-of-factly retorts, “That’s cause I’ve been drinkin’, bitch!” 

Welcome to HANCOCK, this summer’s first super hero film not based on any known source material.  As played by Will Smith (coming off his very stellar performance in last fall’s surprisingly decent I AM LEGEND), John Hancock (just like one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence) may be the most atypical hero of all time.  Instead adorning a skintight leotard and a cape – not to mention having a secret identity – Hancock is a smelly, dirty, unshaven, foul mouthed, misogynistic, and raunchy hobo.  He is also the only super hero to have a bottle of whiskey in one hand while he battles evildoers with the other  (question: is drunk flying against any law if you’re the one that is physically flying?).  He’s got super speed and super strength that can only be matched by his super foul booze breath and his genuinely vulgar and impolite attitude.  He also seems indestructible, but his weakness is the bottle.  

Hancock lives a life as a recluse, a skid row bum that ekes out his days passing out at buss stops.  Occasionally, and when the situation compels him to do so, he will come to grips with his calling and stop any type of bad guys that perpetrate crime…but often with some disastrous effects.  An early sequence in HANCOCK shows the inebriated hero stopping a batch of crooks by perusing their getaway car along a busy freeway.  Unfortunately, Hancock is so dang smashed that he flies right through freeway signs, which destroys cars bellow, and then he deposits the evildoers' car where it certainly should not be left (all in all: the city estimates the property damage in the millions).  Yes, Hancock does save the day on occasion, but he also manages to leave a considerable amount of avoidable collateral damage in the process.  Of course, he takes it all in stride.  After all…who in the hell would stop a chronic alcoholic that is as strong as the Man of Steel? 

Okay, the most fitting thing I will say about HANCOCK is that it’s an utter mess of a film.  Yet, this film’s premise is not the problem with it:  The character of Hancock has balls, but the film that surrounds has none.  This is one of those regrettably watered down, would-be R-rated films that seems outright neutered by the marginalization of the PG-13 rating.  It’s simply one of the most obvious attempts a studio taking a character and subject matter that wants to soar up, up, and away to pleasingly coarse and scatological heights of politically incorrect debauchery and instead tames it down to reach the broadest possible audience demographic.  On those terms, HANCOCK is totally disingenuous to itself.  

Even worse is the fact that this film has a really great and nifty premise and goes nowhere with it fast.  The opening moments of the film do, if fact, have a nice balancing act of alternating between large-scale comic book spectacle and satiric laughs.  The whole concept of a self-loathing super-hero that’s more addicted to Jack Daniels than saving lives is intriguing enough, but HANCOCK soon spirals way out of control with what has to be one of the most telegraphed plot “twists” I’ve seen in a film this year, not to mention that when the story provides a horrendously handled change in tone and gives the entire history and origin of Hancock, the entire universe that this film sets up implodes on itself.  That’s a bona fide disgrace, seeing as Smith and his co-stars give thanklessly respectable performances here.

The story itself, as stated, has a hopeful beginning.  Hancock has a life-changing day when he manages to come to the rescue of Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman, whose carved out one good supporting performance after another, and does so again here) who he later finds out is in the field of public relations.  Ray’s heart is in his dream project, the “All-Heart” charity, which has a foundation that’s so flimsy that most corporate big wigs want to have nothing to do with.  Okay, so Ray’s PR mission is really flaky at best, but he is a good man and sees real potential in Hancock to radically depart from his nightmarish image as a no-good menace to one of an adored and esteemed super hero.  Ray, in consideration for his life being saved, makes it his mission to make Hancock the media super-darling he rightfully should be.  Ray’s loving wife, Mary (Charlize Theron, who has never been more agreeably sexy in a film) seems a lot more guarded about dealing with Hancock.  When Ray brings the hero home, she gives him many distrusting stares. 

Nonetheless, Ray has what he thinks is a foolproof plan, but one that does not initially sit well with Hancock.  Ray wants him to actually turn himself in to police and do time in prison.  Why?  Well, maybe by serving a sentence in jail might garner up some serious PR points, not to mention respect from those that feel Hancock owes the city something back.  Of course, no correctional facility could ever hold Hancock, but that’s not the point.  Ray hopes that the public will revere Hancock more if he allows himself to succumb to a jail sentence.  Also, Ray feels that the crime rate will rise so much while Hancock is in prison that the public will do anything to get him back on the streets.  

The logic here sounds right, but Hancock has a mighty tough time adjusting to prison life (one of the film’s funniest and most shocking scenes has him literally backing up his words about shoving one belligerent inmates head up another one’s…you know).  While Hancock serves his time, Ray coaches him on super hero etiquette (like, saying “good job” to the police that are trying to get control of things before he takes control, and to hold back on his landings so he doesn’t cause costly craters in the streets).  Finally, there is the obligatory costume, which Hancock begrudgingly decides to wear, although he would much rather wear cargo shorts, a tank top, and sunglasses. 

The film’s story (originally attributed to a 1996 spec script named “Tonight, He Comes” by Vincent Ngo) has some real fun with these early moments, but just after Hancock is released from prison and starts to become a real hero, the film takes a categorical nosedive.  The first major problem the plot has is its rigid, almost inane, predictability, especially the way it slavishly adheres to Roger Ebert’s “Law of Economy of Characters” (which states that "any apparently unnecessary or extraneous major character is undoubtedly the villain").  Perhaps the central problem is with the casting of multiple Oscar nominee and winner Charlize Theron as the unassuming wife.  Her marquee as an A-list actress is so large that we know with alarming certainty that Mary will undoubtedly not just play second fiddle as a loyal wife persona in the background.  From the very first minute she appears and gives Hancock one of several beyond-obvious suspicious glances, you know that she will play a prominent role later.  When Mary inevitably reveals that – gasp! – she too is an all-powerful super hero, there is not one head in the theatre that did not displeasurably shake with a “saw that coming from a mile away” demeanor. 

Even more awkward and confusing as hell is how the story provides exposition as to how she and Hancock relate to one another, which only exasperates the film as one consisting of wildly incongruent tonal shifts.  Early in the film Hancock recalls how he awoke 80 years ago without much memory of what occurred before that, which leads one to wonder why anyone in the media for the last eight decades has not caught on to the fact that this very public hero has not aged a day during that period?  

This is only the beginning of HANCOCK’S frustratingly ill-mannered attempts at laying down the rules for its world.  We later learn from Mary that she and Hancock are actually immortals and are nearly 3000 years old.  Okay.  Fine.  But then she offers up a rationale as to why there are no other members of their ancient race around anymore.  It seems that this race dies out because of a weakness which causes its members to lose their powers when – get this – they are very close to one another.  Members of this race were created in pairs, and are inevitably drawn to one another.  In short, Hancock and Mary are a “pair.” 

Huh?  

I simply don’t understand.  Why would an ancient race create beings where their disastrous Achilles' heel was…close proximity to one another?  This race has to be one of the stupidest of the last 3000 years, seeing as only morons would have created pairs of super men and women that would idiotically make themselves mortal if they occupied the same small space.  The further problem with this rationale for Hancock’s existence is that it never is able to hold itself up to flimsy scrutiny later and eventually contradicts itself.  Why, for starters, does Hancock not get weak in early scenes with Mary (when he and the audience does not know her heritage), but later in the film (when we learn everything) he becomes nearly mortal in her presence?  I have no problem when films establish little rules by which their characters occupy for the sake of narrative, but when their arbitrarily abort them for the convenience of the story, its unforgivable.  The purpose, I guess, of this is to make Hancock very weak at a key moment in the film while being pounded by bad guys to drum up the tension. Then, the film conveniently gives him his strength back, just when he needs it.  

HANCOCK was directed by the usually very competent Peter Berg (who last made one of the most underrated action thrillers of 2007 in THE KINGDOM, not to mention one of the better sports films of the last few years in FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS).  In anything, his aesthetic choices in HANCOCK are at least interesting:  He shoots things in a laid back, fly-on-the-wall, vérité style, which provides a nice stark contrast to the typical sheen and polish of most summer comic books films.  He is also adept at marrying million dollar visual effects and convincingly integrating them into the live action.  The performances by Smith and especially Bateman are solid.  Yet, it seems that all the players behind the scenes lacked the foresight to notice that HANCOCK is woefully inconsistent, lazily conventional, and has a story with faulty logic that implodes on itself in the last hour.  As an action comedy, the film gets a few chuckles and the action set pieces are first rate, but there is no pardoning HANCOCK for its cheap, game-changing plot twists and lame execution of its premise, so much so that it becomes disappointingly nonsensical.  As a result, the film infuriatingly perplexed me more than it did joyously entertain, which certainly is kryptonite to any successful summer, super hero action film.  

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