Friday 16 January 2009

Hancock (2008)

Friday 16 January 2009
The pitch is superb: what if Superman was a drunken deadbeat? Vincent Ngo's original 1996 screenplay "Tonight, He Comes" was a dark, moody piece about an alcoholic, suicidal superhero taken in by a family and their bullied 12-year-old. In another example of Hollywood manipulating a caustic script into something blithely marketable, Hancock takes Ngo's basic premise and smooths its edginess into soft popcorn.

Hancock (Will Smith) is a delinquent superhero who'd rather sleep off a hangover on a park bench than catch criminals. Alone in the world (a ticket to see Frankenstein the only clue to his forgotten past) and hated by those he grudgingly tries to help (often doing more harm than good), Hancock can't even have sex without risk of ejaculating a fatal wound in his lover. Life is bad.

Enter PR man Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), who decides to use his skills to transform Hancock's public image after he saves his life. The plan is simple: send Hancock to prison for his past misdemeanours, until the inevitable increase in crime has police begging for his early release. But, as preparations are made for his rehabilitation, Hancock finds himself inexplicably drawn to Ray's beautiful wife Mary (Charlize Theron)...

Trace elements of Ngo's original vision can be tasted, but Hancock is fundamentally a big blockbuster Will Smith movie that's big on CGI, quite funny, but generally a wasted opportunity. A big problem is a hurried sense of pace -- Hancock's jailed and reforms in under an hour, making room for a twist in the tale that (while unexpected) is a little silly, and turns the film into a significantly less original entity.

Director Peter Berg (The Kingdom) is an interesting filmmaker, and there are certainly themes and ideas in Hancock well worth exploring. Miscegenation in a summer blockbuster isn't something you see every day, and it's worth celebrating. Will Smith made racial inroads with Cuban hottie Eva Mendes in Hitch, but Hancock progresses onto full African-American/White-South African with its Smith/Theron coupling.

It's embarrassing to consider, but when did you last see that in a major mainstream picture? Monster's Ball doesn't count, being an indie. It could also be argued that drunken-Hancock represents repressed white fears, before he essentially starts dressing like '80s Michael Jackson and acting deferential to white women in distress. So yes, there's intriguing subtext simmering beneath the surface, so it's a shame everything else is played so broad and becomes so unfulfilling.

A common complaint is that the first half's solid, tight, comedy fun, but the last half devolves into clich├ęd, CGI'd, comic-book pap. I partly agree. However, I found the allegedly better first half quite dumb and predictable (the jokes spoiled by the trailers, too), while the second-half was more surprising and intriguing. But yes, it's still an abrupt change of direction and tone that isn't what audiences signed up for. Drunken superhero got on the wagon far, far too early.

The actors all do well; particularly Smith, dirtying his wholesome image to provide deadpan giggles, and giving his character more depth than is on the page. Bateman does his usual well-meaning corporate nice-guy routine, and does it well. Theron is as gorgeous as ever, playing icy Mary as a woman who's very wary of her husband's new friend. Incidentally, someone really needs to cast Theron in a decent comic-book movie, ignoring her Aeon Flux try-out. Forgettable support is provided by Eddie Marsan as a feeble and disappointing bank robber villain, who seems shoehorned into the story and can't compete with the star-power around him.

Overall, Hancock is a flawed movie that gets by on the charisma of Will Smith, an engaging performance from Charlize Theron, and enough sequences of mass destruction and superheroics to pass the time (even if it seems like you're sitting through an extended trailer, really.) Perhaps most unforgivably, its own internal logic is ignored in Act III, resulting in a climax that feels confusing, conflicting and very irritating.

Hancock would have been twice as interesting if the studio had been brave enough to make Ngo's acerbic script word-for-word (if not as profitable), but this compromised version doesn't fail because the screenplay was diluted into summer blockbuster fare. It fails because of an unclear tone and narrative curveballs that just don't fly. Ambitious, certainly; a frustrating mess, definitely.

Columbia Pictures
Budget: $150 million
93 minutes

Director: Peter Berg
Writers: Vince Gilligan & Vincent Ngo

Cast: Will Smith (John Hancock), Jason Bateman (Ray Embrey), Charlize Theron (Mary Embrey), Eddie Marsan (Kenneth "Red" Parker, Jr.), Jae Head (Aaron Embrey), David Mattey (Man Mountain), Thomas Lennon (Mike) & Johnny Galecki (Jeremy)