Outside of Wild Wild West and the pointless sequel Bad Boys II, Will Smith has proven throughout his career to be one of those rare actors who can elevate average material into good and often great films, based simply on his talent and sheer charisma.
As the star of Hancock (opening Wednesday, July 2nd.) however, Smith actually winds up being a detriment to the final product. Obviously I’m not talking about box-office potential. Hancock is an entertaining summer popcorn flick without an inch of fat on its well-budgeted frame, and it has the planet’s most bankable star above the title. It’s going to be a BIG hit.
But it could have been so much more.
Originally titled “Tonight, He Comes,” Vy Vincent Ngo’s screenplay was meant to be a deconstruction of the superhero myth. It was one of those scripts, like “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” that floated around Hollywood for years because no one could figure out how to film it.
[In one scene that gives new meaning to ‘Up, Up and Away!’, the title player literally blows a hole in the ceiling with a super-powered orgasm. And no, that didn’t make the final cut.]
But when you have Will Smith as the star (he’s also one of the producers) of your $150 million+ picture, the studio likes to hedge its bets. So your unlikeable super-powered drunk can’t be unlikeable for too much of the movie, and he can’t be too mean to children. An R-rated script becomes a watered-down PG-13 film.
Now Hancock does have its many moments. Like the one in a prison yard where Hancock delivers on a rather heinous promise, and another when he admonishes a young neighborhood bully – BY THROWING HIM INTO THE STRATOSPHERE.
Smith is as always, eminently watchable. He’s at his best when Hancock is at his surliest. Instead of the twinkle in his eye we’ve seen in films like Men in Black and Hitch, Smith is closer to his character in I Am Legend.
Just as he was The Last Man on Earth in that movie, Hancock here is ‘the only one of his kind.’ He’s just as confused and even lonelier, without even a dog for companionship. Smith gives us a hero unable or unwilling to extend a hand and ask for help for himself, and he does it well.
Director Peter Berg also addresses several topics that we comic book fans have wrung our newsprint-stained hands over for decades: How come all heroes know how to fly straight? And how do they all know how to stick a landing?
Hancock doesn’t do either one well. His flying is erratic, and his landings and takeoffs leave craters in their wake. Every time he happens upon a crime scene, it becomes a disaster area.
This guy can’t do anything right, even when he’s trying to do the right thing…
After saving the life of public relations guy Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) from an oncoming train and leaving behind his usual trail of destruction, a crowd of onlookers berates Hancock for his clumsiness. They detest him and he can’t stand them.
Back in the 60s heyday of Amazing Spider-Man, our misunderstood wall-crawler used to get regularly excoriated at the scene of his many battles by a public goaded by J. Jonah Jameson’s editorials. I used to wonder why Spidey wouldn’t just tell that ungrateful rabble off? ‘Think you can do better, wise guy? There’s the Rhino. Knock yourself out!’
But he always took it, and quietly swung or crawled away. A true hero’s above that sort of pettiness. But Hancock isn’t.
As Ray Embrey, Bateman smartly tones down his trademark deadpan wit for a role that is surprisingly meaty for a sidekick part. Ray is the true do-gooder of the film. He’s an altruistic guy who tries to convince Corporate America that giving away their products to the needy is a good PR move. It didn’t work, but he still tried.
After the train incident, Ray decides to help a reluctant Hancock rehab his image. His young son, who Hancock slowly warms to, is thrilled. His wife Mary (played by Smith’s The Legend of Bagger Vance co-star Charlize Theron) isn’t. She doubts her husband can transform this super zero into a hero. Theron’s role could have been a throwaway but the Oscar-winner gets several chances to shine.
All three lead roles in fact, especially Bateman’s, are surprisingly beefy considering the compact 92-minute running time.
Things do move quickly though, so one costume change and act of heroism later, the film turns on a dime.
There’s a plot twist in the middle that sends the movie in a completely different direction. It’s one of those reveals that will polarize the audience. Some will love it, others will hate it.
It also leads to a fight sequence on Hollywood Boulevard that rivals anything we saw in Iron Man or The Incredible Hulk.
And that isn’t even the climax. Director Berg shows a Michael Mann-like touch for well-choreographed action. Considering Mann produced this film and Berg’s last – The Kingdom – that not too surprising. It’s still impressive to see a guy whose best film was about high school football (Friday Night Lights) segue so smoothly into a big-budget action spectacle.
That’s why watching Hancock was so frustrating. You can’t help but be entertained. It’s funny, occasionally thought-provoking and downright spectacular at times.
At its best, during the first 40 minutes, it’s a dark comedy about a guy who’s mad at the world, hates his job and wants to be left alone. Add in the fact that he’s indestructible and it makes for fascinating stuff.
Until it turns into just another summer slugfest. Since Will Smith is involved, it’s still fun, escapist fare that’s a cut above the norm.
But I can’t help thinking that if Mr. Fourth of July wasn’t in the picture, this maybe, just maybe, could have been something a bit more special. We’ll never know.