Starring: Will Smith, Jason Bateman, Charlize Theron
Directed By: Peter Berg
Written by: Vince Gillligan, Vy Vincent Ngo
The 4th of July brings us three things we can count on; fireworks, family picnics and a big honkin’ Will Smith action movie. This year’s offering is Hancock, an action comedy—sort of—about a reluctant superhero with a bad attitude.
The first two-thirds of this movie are delightful. This is mostly because of the interaction between Smith and Jason Bateman. Bateman is wonderful! Smith can always be relied on to turn in a good performance, and he is suitably vulgar, funny and forlorn throughout.
Hancock is an alcoholic loner who has super strength, is impervious to bullets, and can fly. He saves lives, he stops crime, but he is sloppy about it, and has a nasty personality. He has also racked up a lot of property damage—a lot of bright, shiny Los Angeles property damage. In a theme better explored in another superhero movie—The Incredibles—Hancock has to deal with a populace who resents him and takes him for granted rather than acting grateful. In one scene, the people crowd around to critique Hancock’s rescue technique. When Hancock saves the life of Ray (Bateman), an idealistic PR man, Ray decides to return the favor by “re-branding” Hancock and making him likeable. Aaron, Ray’s young son, thinks Hancock is cool, but his wife Mary (Charlize Theron) is obviously, visibly skeptical.
As part of Hancock’s image-rehabilitation, Ray says, Hancock must turn himself in for the property damage stuff. Ray believes that once Hancock is unavailable to stop crime, the public will begin to clamor for him. Hancock reads a public apology that calls to mind the myriad of celebrities who have done exactly the same thing, and goes off to jail. The jail scenes, while completely unrealistic, are mostly hilarious. The very best jail scene is coarse and laugh-out-loud funny when it relies on sound effects and actors’ reactions, which are priceless, and is then ruined by an unnecessary visual that makes two inmates look like a centaur from an old Xena episode.
Still, the jail idea is funny because it resonates with so many bad celebrities—public apologies, jail processing, rehab, etc. My favorite set of scenes in the jail sequence is Jason Bateman, who has suggested that Hancock could schmooze the police better when he is at a crime scene, coaching Hancock to say “Good job.” By second favorite scene is any one of the group therapy scenes.
For reasons that are unclear and unlikely, Mary brings Aaron to the jail to visit Hancock, and warns him not to disappoint Ray, who is a “good man.” This scene actually undercuts the story logic—if that word isn’t too grandiose—later on.
Ray’s plan works, and the Chief of Police himself calls to spring Hancock from jail when he has a situation he can’t control. Dressed in a spiffy costume, a newly politically-correct Hancock rescues a wounded cop who is pinned down by the bank robbers. (“Do I have permission to touch your body?” he asks her. “I want you to know this isn’t sexual, not that you aren’t attractive.” She replies, “Get me the hell out of here!”) He confronts the “master criminal,” who is really only the premise of a master criminal, rescues the hostages, but makes a permanent enemy. The people of LA, however, applaud him and chant his name. It’s just like with Britney—the whole MTV Music Award thing is in the past, sweetie. All is forgiven.
And up to here it’s been a little different, pretty exciting and pretty funny. Ray’s idealism and Hancock’s defensive bristling have worked well. Theron is beautiful and the action scenes are active. It’s good that we had that, because it’s all about to change. Now comes the Reveal, and after the reveal, the movie slides into complete incomprehensibility.
Hancock, it turns out, has amnesia and can’t remember anything since waking up with a head injury 80 years ago in a Miami hospital. He has assumed that the injury somehow gave him his powers, because otherwise, how could he have a head injury? He is, of course, wrong, and very shortly he meets another being like himself. This person promises, somewhat under duress, to explain everything, and then there’s a baffling flying-fighting-explaining sequence that doesn’t make sense, oh, and it snows. In LA. In summer. I was really irritated that the other super-being wouldn’t just honestly explain to Hancock about his past instead of indulging in all this “maybe angels, maybe gods, maybe ETs” claptrap until I realized that they couldn’t. They couldn’t explain honestly because this explanation makes no sense.
The short explanation; kryptonite. The slightly longer explanation; you can really like someone and they can still be your kryptonite. While this is a useful metaphor for a relationship coach, it doesn’t really do what it should to advance this particular movie. This is a failure of the script. With this cast, even this lame rationale could fly, so to speak, if the writers had taken the time to let the characters be real and react honestly to the new information, instead of giving us a special-effects scene that accomplishes nothing.
Some time later, the bank robber/master-criminal dude escapes with two convicts, and they come after Hancock who is vulnerable now. They catch Ray, Mary and Aaron in the crossfire. The purposes of this barely-sensical sequence are 1) to allow Ray to be a physical hero (read, “man”) instead of just the “heart” of the movie, and 2) force Hancock to make the kind of dramatic self-sacrifice that passes for nobility and maturity in super-hero movies.
The ending implodes, but the first two-thirds carried it for me. There is a great slapstick routine between Theron and Smith that sizzles because of perfect timing and Bateman’s absolute self-discipline, as Ray, engaged in a cell-phone conversation, appears oblivious. The scenes in the hospital even engaged me because Smith is able to be vulnerable, emotionally as well as physically. Some reviewers have complained about the extreme close-ups, but I liked them in the hospital section. The confusion and openness in Smith’s eyes almost make this movie’s premise work.