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Hancock   B-

Columbia Pictures / Relativity Media

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Peter Berg
Writer: Vincent Ngo, Vince Gilligan
Cast: Will Smith, Charlize Theron, Jason Bateman, Eddie Marsan, Johnny Galecki, Thomas Lennon, Jae Head.

Review by Rob Vaux

Through good movies and bad, Will Smith's characters have always had a few things in common. They're all smart, they're all capable, and they all endeavor to do the right thing. But with Hancock? Not so much. Its high-concept thesis meditates on how Superman might behave if he were a great big jerk, which lets Smith have a great deal of fun playing off of his previous clean-cut image. That's enough to take Hancock through a fair number of rough spots, though only barely at times.

Smith rarely pushes the limits of what he is capable of as an actor, but he certainly has no peer as a movie star. (I shudder to think how dreadful something like I Am Legend would have been without him.) Hancock deploys his talents remarkably well as an invulnerable, super-strong amnesiac named John Hancock who saves the world every day, but always treats it like a massive hassle. He drinks too. A lot. And people tend to yell at him for all the damage he causes -- dropping buildings on bad guys has a hell of a clean-up bill attached -- to which he responds in kind. Then he gains the attention of helpful media relations expert Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) after saving the man from an onrushing train. Embrey thinks he can improve Hancock's image, much to the delight of his young son Aaron (Jae Head). His wife Mary (Charlize Theron), however, has a much different reaction, especially when Hancock takes dinner at their place with a bottle of Jack Daniels in tow.

The first half hour is a simple riff on those basic notions, its fitfully amusing material bolstered by Smith's wholehearted embrace of the concept. Hancock is the only superhero in this universe; he's invulnerable to pain, he can do squat-thrusts with city buses, and he doesn't give a crap if his landings make big dents in the sidewalk. How do you police someone like that? How tell him that his behavior is becoming unacceptable? Strictly speaking, you don't... unless you can get him to realize that he might be better off if people didn't hate his guts. Embrey understands that, and is a sufficiently skilled psychological manipulator to goad Hancock in the right direction. Bateman's basically playing his Michael Bluth character from Arrested Development, but it works decently against Smith's surly, alienated godchild. Though quite chaotic, the first act scores a number of very funny points simply by exploring the dynamic between them.

Naturally, it's not enough. At about the 40-minute mark, the concept starts to show some large cracks, and even Smith's growing rapport with Bateman can't hold it all together. Director Peter Berg responds with a twist -- a big twist -- sufficiently well-hidden to make for quite a surprise and sufficiently interesting to expand the film's palate to a reasonable running time. To speak more on it would give things away, though it gives the proceedings a badly needed shot in the arm.

And even then, it's a near thing sometimes. Structurally speaking, Hancock is a mess. It lurches uncomfortably from one set piece to another while trying madly to maintain our attention span through any means it can muster. It holds together because Berg makes the most of his opportunities, and because the film's overall tone of cock-eyed sarcasm fits like a glove with Hancock's own perceptions. Smith lets us connect with the character in a few unconventional ways, which points the comedy in interesting directions and helps this giant behemoth of a movie find a human pulse.

To be sure, Hancock does very little that other projects haven't done better. The line of misunderstood superheroes starts behind the X-Men, the Justice League Unlimited TV show took a more serious (and rather brilliant) approach to spandex-based PR problems, and satires of the genre still have The Tick and the badly underrated Mystery Men as standard bearers. Hancock endures by finding the right rhythm to match its star, and by lashing enough amusing moments together to provide a trim 92 minutes of entertainment. Had it run any longer, it might have squandered whatever goodwill an audience was prepared to grant. Even at such a brief length, it pushes things. But it contains sufficiently worthwhile material to keep its promises, and lowered expectations will still produce a reasonably good time. If, like its hero, it creates a little rubble in the process, you can't say you weren't warned. Movies like Hancock have a way of doing that. This one, at least, makes the wreckage look pretty cool sometimes.

Review published 07.08.2008.

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