Several years ago when “Hancock” was in development under the title “Tonight He Comes”, the script was frequently lauded as one of the most innovative, edgy and original works to have come through the pipeline in a long time.
It seems a real shame then that the resulting film takes an admittedly strong concept and runs it into the ground with a cumbersome, crude and simply asinine superhero vehicle for star Will Smith. Smith delivers the goods where needed with his usual charm, but even his few fun lines can’t salvage this patchy wreckage which – even with its brief 92 minute runtime – feels severely overwrought in some areas, yet wholly inadequate in others.
The story starts off with the super powered John Hancock stopping a gang of thieves but with little care for the property destruction he causes in the process. The disgruntled alcoholic – who seems to carry a bottle around everywhere yet rarely drinks from it – ends up saving the life of no-luck PR guy Ray (Jason Bateman) who decides to help Hancock remake his image. However Ray’s wife (Charlize Theron) has a notable problem with Hancock being around.
The premise has some great possibilities – a redemption theme, scathing black comedy that eviscerates the superhero genre, and a gritty and entirely real world Los Angeles setting which lends it more gravitas than the fantasy-style cities of the Marvel heroes. Yet for much of the first half it essentially squanders those opportunities. Restricted to a few ‘racy for PG-13’ lines, the comedy consists mostly of people calling each other assholes or Hancock threatening to insert things (mostly heads) into assholes.
It’s juvenile and not particularly funny, the few ‘already spoiled by the ads’ visual gags work better, but the pace at least moves the film forward. Director Peter Berg also casts well with Smith delivering his usual solid work, Jason Bateman as the world’s most optimistic publicist is a decent character which the actor makes the most of, and Theron tries her best with an overly aggressive yet notably underwritten wife role. It’s a surprisingly low-key and even somber setup – the decently realized redemption subplot mostly wrapped up by the half way point.
After that however, the film falls apart. What started out as a missed opportunity – a black comedy without any teeth – turns into a poorly conceived tragedy of lost love and cheating fate. A far too elaborate and frequently contradictory mythology ultimately causes the narrative to collapse under its own weight, leaving characters spouting reams of useless back story to fill in the gaps between a few impressively grand but way over-the-top action set pieces to carry us limping towards the finale.
The tone is strange. The frequent swearing and the surprisingly brutal final action sequence set around a hospital are simply way too rough for the kids, yet the rest of the film plays it far too safe and juvenile to be considered a more mature work either. There’s a notable lethargy to proceedings – the score relies on tired hip hop numbers or riffs from John Williams “Superman” score, the production design is notably uninspired, and the script displays more than a few unbelievable coincidences and out-of-nowhere additions that a production of this scale should have easily corrected.
The most blatant problem right from the start however is Berg’s choice of visuals – with the exception of a few landscape wide shots, the entire movie is shot with ‘kinetic handicam’ and intense close-ups. Whereas that kind of trick worked with the quick fire “Bourne” films, the far more sporadic pacing of “Hancock” feels very ill-suited for the technique. The style ultimately ruins the film’s biggest set piece involving an FX-filled mano-e-mano fight between Hancock and another character, whilst the quieter dialogue scenes become almost nauseating to watch.
Ultimately “Hancock” is a clumsily executed, forgettable mess. Too many behind-the-scenes forces have each tried to pull the film in a different direction – with the resulting hodge podge satisfying no-one. Too dark for kids, too dull for teens and too dumb for adults – the attempt to broaden inherently subversive and precisely targeted material robs it of any real coherence or weight – ultimately eating itself in its attempts to both lend gravity too and satirize the superhero genre. Not a disaster of “Wild Wild West” proportions, nevertheless “Hancock” will serve as a real test of Smith’s true box-office power – if he can sell this mess, he can sell anything.