Will Smith’s latest would-be blockbuster flies into theatres while dodging the slings and arrows of outraged critics, who so far have given the film a fairly miserable 36% approval rating in this survey of 157 reviews at Rotten Tomatoes. Is this merely critical backlash – a chance to tear down Hollywood’s biggest star – or is this superhero comedy really not so super? Backlash seems an unlikely explanation: even the negative reviews seem to think that the premise had potential; they tend to express disappointment, rather than disgust, because the film fails to follow through on its own promise. All of this may be – in fact, is – true, but the bottom line is that, as far as botched movies go, HANCOCK is a painless way to pass a couple of hours enjoying a mindless summer popcorn movie.
The basic idea – a superhero who is actively disliked by the populace he protects, because he acts like an ungracious bum in his personal life – is a funny starting point, and the script takes off fairly quickly when a young idealistic public relations man (a concept far more fanciful than a superhero) decides to rehabilitate Hancock’s image. Unfortunately, Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman)’s strategy is so effective that this plot thread has been resolved midway through the film, so the script has to find something else to do for the final act. This leads to a plot twist of the kind that only works in a comedy.
It turns out that amnesiac Hancock is not the only one of his kind; one of the other major characters is also endowed with superpowers – and immortality. As a jokey surprise revelation, this is good for a few chuckles, and it does give the film something else to do, but it undermines much of what was initially interesting about the film.
We are no longer dealing with a superhero who is just an ordinary guy; he is an immortal who has lived for thousands of years. Co-producer Michael Mann dealt with a similar idea in THE KEEP (1983), but this feels more like a trip through HIGHLANDER territory, along with a set of rules that feel about as convoluted and ill-thought-out as the Supreme Court’s Bush vs. Gore decision (the result of deciding on the outcome first, then retroactively making up the rules to reach that outcome).
The idea is developed poorly. We simply have to take to accept these two rather obviously modern characters as if they were people who had existed for thousands of years. Nothing in the writing or the performances offers the least suggestion of a personality formed from millennia of experience. (We might also question whether people thousands of years ago look exactly like Will Smith and Charlize Theron, but let that one slide.)
This leads to a fairly wimpy special effects duel of the titans, in which Hancock and his unhappy female counterpart carry on like a couple badly in need of anger management therapy. The scene, which drags the film down to the level of MY SUPER EX-GIRLFRIEND, lacks punch because we do not really care about the outcome. As if this were not bad enough, this spectacular special effects set piece upstages the actual climax, which comes later in the film and involves only an ordinary (if somewhat charismatic) human villain.
HANCOCK touches on some interesting ideas. Are actual heroics (such as saving lives) enough to earn public acclaim, or do you need to look good at the press conference afterward? How much collateral damage can be added up before it outweighs the good that is achieved? Is the concept of a superhero really so appealing, or should we be frightened by the thought of someone so far beyond any power of law to restrain their actions?
None of these concepts is developed or resolved. Ultimately, HANCOCK is a typical coming of age story, about someone who finally comes to terms with who he really is. It is a bit funny to think it took him this many centuries to achieve something so fundamental, but that’s Hollywood, isn’t it?
On the plus side, it is amusing to see Bateman cast in what is essentially the “Magic Negro” role. This is usually a plucky and resourceful black supporting character whose skills exist only so that they may help the Great White Hero achieve his rightful destiny. Smith himself essayed a variation on this character as the golf caddy in THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE, so it is only karmic justic that the tables should now be turned in his favor, with the racial roles reversed.
Well, not completely reversed. In BAGGER VANCE, I don’t think Matt Damon’s golf star had to resign himself to the thought of his love interest being married to his caddy. In setting up sequels, HANCOCK opts for a tragic sublimation scenario, in which Hancock realizes he can never be together with his immortal beloved, who has found domestic happiness with a mortal. I won’t bore you with the messy details of why; I’ll just point out that the attempt to pluck the heartstrings barely sounds a note. Although one would like to be colorblind, it is impossible not to notice that this outcome very conveniently prevents the black leading man and the blond leading lady from hooking up – it’s like a punchline from Dave Chappelle’s tirade about blacks in the media from UNDERCOVER BROTHER.
We must take solace in the fact that, although HANCOCK begins by presenting the idea of a black superhero as a joke (rather like the much worse METEOR MAN), by the end the rude and crude reprobate has reformed and assumed the mantel of superhero in all his glory. One hopes that any future films will stick to telling a single story through to its conclusion, instead of haphazardly splicing two together.
In the film, Hancock is peculiarly sensitive to the insult “asshole,” which at one point provokes him to toss an obnoxious pre-teen bully a mile high into the air. For the film’s commercial TV spots, alternate takes of this scene were filmed, in which the overconfident kid calls Hancock a “jerk.” As for why the kid had to speak in a French accent: presumably the filmmakers thought American audiences (at least those Bush supporters still smarting over French resistance to the Iraq War) would more thoroughly enjoy the humiliation of a French child.
HANCOCK (2008). Directed by Peter Berg. Written by Vincent Ngo & Vince Gilligan. Cast: Will Smith, Charlize Theron, Jason Bateman, Jae Head, Eddie Marsan, David Mattey, Maetrix Fitten, Thomas Lemmon, Johnny Galecki, Hayley Marie Norman.