July 2, 2008
MOVIE REVIEW | 'HANCOCK' Able to Leap Tall Buildings, Even if Hung Over
By MANOHLA DARGIS
Soon into the superhero spectacular “Hancock,”
before the machinery has fully kicked in, and the story is still wreathed in blissful ambiguity, you see the star Will Smith
sprawled on a Los Angeles bench. Dirty, disheveled, in full distressed costume and character, and within easy sloshing reach of a bottle, he looks lost and alone, much like all the human detritus that washes up in every city and remains mostly unnoticed. But there’s no ignoring Hancock, who has amazing powers. He can fly, for starters, and soon enough he’s blasting straight into the heavens, the first homeless superhero in movies — Superbum!
Alas (bummer), though he can look the part, Hancock isn’t literally homeless, just rootless, troubled and bedeviled. He drinks hard, swears at children (who curse him in turn), rarely shaves, never smiles. Worse, he has lousy superhero style, with sneakers and shorts (no cape), a grubby watch cap pulled over his forehead and buggy sunglasses that hide his (X-ray?) eyes. His takeoffs and landings are a mess: sloppy and violent, they invariably leave a heap of trouble and general rubble in his wake. He’s Pothole Man, Train Wreck Man, but mainly he’s Seriously Ticked Off Man, which, given that he’s also a black man in Los Angeles, suggests that this superhero story comes with some bite, even a few nibbling sharp teeth.
Although whatever teeth it had have mostly been pulled, “Hancock” makes for one unexpectedly satisfying and kinky addition to Hollywood’s superhero chronicles. Touching and odd, laden with genuine twists and grounded by three appealing lead performances, it was ably directed by Peter Berg
and written by Vy Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan. It’s a curious movie for the week of July 4, when the air is traditionally filled with the rockets’ red glare and muscular box office heroics. There’s a real jolt in the choking, splenetic exhaust of a disgruntled blockbuster anti-hero, especially one played by the affable Mr. Smith, who 12 years ago this very week helped save the world in “Independence Day,”
a movie that made blowing up the White House into a joke.
That was then, this is now, and while it would be a stretch to say that this summertime amusement has much on its mind, it does have a little something percolating between its big bangs and gaudy effects. Most of that something isn’t overtly political, despite the setup (Super Angry Black Man), a few winking asides and Mr. Berg’s downbeat tendencies. Mr. Smith may be playing a provocative role in a city famous for its troubled race relations, but he’s also a megastar and largely shielded from everyday stings, which, as it happens, is also true of his character. Hancock kicks back in a couple of derelict trailers (the Shack of Solitude) instead of a mansion, but his pain is existential, not material. He suffers at his leisure.
Engineered for broad, knowing laughs, with lots of kablooey, “Hancock” is principally a comedy and for a while plays out that way, notably when Mr. Smith is interacting with Jason Bateman
. Their characters meet cute when Hancock saves Ray (Mr. Bateman) from being flattened by a freight train. In typical fashion, Hancock botches the save. He plucks Ray from death, but in the process derails the train and, also true to bad form, receives an invective-laced earful from the gathering mob. Struck by the crowd’s hostility, Ray, a public relations guy with a do-gooder streak and a knockout wife, Mary (Charlize Theron
), decides to rescue Hancock in turn by giving him a superhero makeover, one that follows a course blazed by many a fallen star (contrition, redemption, fabulousness).
Mr. Berg, who explored heroism of a different stripe in his poignant high school football movie, “Friday Night Lights,”
and showed off terrific action chops in the underrated flick “The Kingdom,”
is not a comedy natural. He squeezes laughs out of “Hancock” — Mr. Bateman needs no goosing — though some of its biggest yuks are fairly yucky, like a cringing bit involving a bizarre variant on prison rape. (That’s entertainment?) For the most part, what Mr. Berg does is bring gravity to “Hancock,” a heaviness that can feel lugubrious even in midair though it often seems just right for a lonely, walking-if-usually-flying, seemingly self-loathing question mark. Mr. Berg takes the character’s complications to heart, and Mr. Smith, his charm and smile dimmed, does the same.
The extent of that complexity doesn’t emerge until the big reveal, which involves Ms. Theron’s character and is so surprising that I heard several grown men loudly gasp. (“No way!”) I was more struck by Ms. Theron, an actress who, I think, is capable of greater depth than most of her performances require, even those that try to rub the glamour off her. She helps Mr. Smith enrich the story’s emotional texture, which is no small thing, since the movie itself starts to falter just when it begins to deepen. That’s too bad because while “Hancock” is far from perfect — it feels overly rushed, particularly toward its chaotic end — it has a raggedness that speaks honestly to the fundamental human fragility that makes the greatest heroes super.
“Hancock” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Big bangs, bruising battles and movie blood.
Opens on Wednesday nationwide.
Directed by Peter Berg
; written by Vy Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan; director of photography, Tobias Schliessler; edited by Paul Rubell and Colby Parker Jr.; music by John Powell; production designer, Neil Spisak; visual effects designer, John Dykstra; produced by Akiva Goldsman, Michael Mann
, Will Smith
and James Lassiter; released by Columbia Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes.
WITH: Will Smith (John Hancock
), Charlize Theron
(Mary), Jason Bateman
(Ray), Eddie Marsan (Red), Johnny Galecki
(Jeremy), Thomas Lennon (Mike) and Atticus Shaffer (Boy at Bus Bench).