Saturday, November 13, 2010

Hancock Movie Review: A Different Kind of Hero

Will Smith as John Hancock, looking smug after carelessly destroying a freight train.

Hancock is sort of a “What if…” movie with regard to superheroes. What if there were a superhero who was good, but rude and offensive and generally left more of a mess in his wake than was worth the good deed done? It also rather amusingly deals with the problem of birds getting in the way of a hero in flight, a subject never broached by any incarnation of Superman. John Hancock, played by the reliably charismatic Will Smith, is such a guy. He’s got the strength and flying ability of Superman, but none of the finesse. When he takes off and lands he leaves giant holes in the street. He drinks most of the time and is generally regarded as a public nuisance. He saves lives not to the final applause of astonished onlookers, but to jeers and sneers (and a lot worse) of a public that is tired of his antics.

Director Peter Berg is not known for making entirely conventional movies. His debut Very Bad Things found humor in the oddest of scenarios, although the film was a critical disaster, Berg being on unsure footing in the subgenre of Black Comedy. His two best films, Friday Night Lights and The Kingdom are rather conventional on the surface but he found fresh perspectives for the sports film and the international intrigue film. Hancock, with a screenplay by Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan that floated around Hollywood for about a decade, is his attempt at turning the superhero film on its head. It’s an idea which was certainly worth taking a stab at a few years ago what with the tremendous overkill of superhero films on the market.

After a destructive opening in which a hung over Hancock captures a van full of bad guys leading the LAPD on a hell raising freeway chase (destroying several squad cars in the process) we meet Ray (Jason Bateman), a publicist pitching a new-fangled “save-the-world” scheme to a corporation only interested in bigger profits. When he leaves the meeting dejected it’s obvious where the film is going. Sure enough, Hancock soon has to come to Ray’s rescue to save him from being plastered by a freight train. Hmmm, a superhero with a PR problem saves the life of a grateful PR man. What will happen next?

Ray takes him home for dinner and to meet the family. Ray’s son, Aaron (Jae Head), is understandably transfixed by the presence of a real life superhero standing in his house. His wife Mary (Charlize Theron), on the other hand, seems less than thrilled about it. In fact, she looks at Hancock as if she knows him. Or is it just a quizzical look at having this obnoxious man in her home? The film’s biggest drawback in its first twenty minutes is that Hancock is painted too much as a complete a—hole. His behavior is so over-the-top as to be unable to sustain plausibility. At a certain point you want to shout at the screen, “Okay, we get it! He’s a jerk!”

Ray recognizes that there’s something else at work behind Hancock’s repellant personality. He suggests that maybe deep down he wants people to accept him and so begins a brief exchange of pop psychology. Here Bateman delivers one of the film’s only good lines: “It’s not a crime to be an a—hole, but it’s counter-productive.” Ultimately Hancock relents and allows Ray to serve as his publicist. The first step is for Hancock to turn himself in to serve a jail sentence for destruction of property – or something. The idea is that once he’s not there to fight crime, his once resentful public will swiftly become the adoring public clamoring for his return.

It only takes about two weeks for Hancock to take Zen-like control of himself. After a long struggle, Ray convinces him to accept that he should tell the police officers on the scene that they’re doing a good job. Hancock is understandably reluctant to deliver such an empty compliment: “What the hell did I have to come for if he’s done a good job?” But eventually the new and improved Hancock shows up to stop a violent bank robbery, hurtling in to a John Powell musical score that’s an obvious homage to John Williams’ Superman theme.

Like any typical superhero story, Hancock also provides an origin story – or what seems like, but may not actually be, an origin story. During his transformation process he reveals to Ray that he woke up in a hospital one day, having sustained a head injury that remarkably healed in a matter of hours. He had no memory of who he was or where he came from, but he has not forgotten his low opinion of himself resulting from the absence of anyone to claim him in the hospital, confirming my earlier suspicion that he was really just “Hurting Inside.”

Unlike most examples of the genre, the principal conflict is not with a cartoon villain, although the script unwisely tries to wedge one (Eddie Marsan) into the late stages of the film. Hancock’s conflict is mostly with himself and later with an unlikely adversary who has hidden secrets and motives.

I wonder if some element of this unusual story is an attempt to examine, albeit in a farcical manner, the ways in which power corrupts. Hancock is untouchable because of his power. He has the run of the city and no one can make him answer for himself. The film begins to head in that direction when various talking heads on television are calling for the indictment of Hancock for millions of dollars worth of damage he’s caused. But instead of following through with what might have been an interesting political allegory, we’re led on by a predictable plot thread that has its closing moments firmly rooted in trite sentimentality.

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