Review: 'Hancock'

Another reluctant superhero takes to the screen with Will Smith in full comedy mode, but plot swerves undermine second half.

Columbia Pictures
Disgruntled superhero Hancock (Will Smith, left) saves the life of a PR exec (Jason Bateman, in car, right) in Columbia Pictures' Hancock.

What superhero shall I vanquish this week? "Hancock" stars Will Smith as the eponymous headliner in what is being promoted as a revisionist bam-pow epic. But what is so new these days about a superhero who doesn't wear the mantle of heroism lightly? From "Iron Man" to "The Incredible Hulk" to "Wanted" – and this is just a culling from the past few months – the comic-book action stars have all been unwilling custodians of their powers. The true revisionism would be if a superhero actually enjoyed being a superhero.

This is emphatically not the case with Hancock, who is so bummed out about his prowess that he zooms around on his rescue missions half-inebriated. More often than not, he creates as many problems as he solves. (His public boos him.) He is, inevitably, based in Los Angeles, where image is all, and his image desperately needs a makeover.

When Hancock rescues from certain death an L.A. public relations "image consultant," Jason Bateman's Ray Embrey, Ray returns the favor by taking the highly reluctant super/anti-hero as his client. Director Peter Berg and his writers Vy Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan have gotten hold of a good satirical idea here: In the modern media world, everybody wants a makeover.

But what begins as a pretty good comedy devolves rapidly into a high-flown example of Hollywood messagemongering. The message is that superheroes are people, too – only more so. I've rarely seen a movie that was as bifurcated as this one. It's not that I object to big tonal shifts. Some of the best movies ever made have traveled seamlessly from the rollicking to the horrific ("Bonnie and Clyde" for example). But "Hancock" is like two entirely different movies – the first one being far better than the second – which leads me to the overwhelming suspicion that the filmmakers had two entirely different movies in mind and, not knowing which one to make, made both (or, to be more exact, made neither).

The strain of messianism in Will Smith movies is becoming ever more pronounced. In the aptly titled "I Am Legend," he played the ostensibly lone survivor of a doomed planet. The character's humanity was held up as a tattered flag of righteousness. In "Hancock," the public's rejection of our hero exemplifies the loss of magic in a mundane world. Hancock may be a bum and an imbiber but only because we drove him to it. We don't appreciate him – we don't deserve him.

Ray's wife, Mary (Charlize Theron, in an improbably good performance), is especially unappreciative, for reasons that become all too clear as the movie hits the midway point. Suffice it to say, this plot development is such a bummer that the movie never really recovers. It may well be that, because he is a megastar, Smith believes he can do anything and audiences will love him for it. The brazenness of "Hancock," the way it confounds audience expectations for no good reason, is an example of star power run amok.

The irony is that "Hancock" – a movie about a hero who wants to be rid of his powers – is the brainchild of a star who revels in his powers without quite knowing what to do with them.

Grade: C- (Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and language.)

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