Movie Review: Hancock
By Matthew Huntley
July 8, 2008
What a great premise: a superhero who drinks, curses and actually costs a city in property damage. Hancock (Will Smith) doesn't know why he's a superhero or even what his real name is (he woke up in a hospital with amnesia and a nurse asked him for his "John Hancock"; the name stuck). He now spends his days sleeping on benches and trading insults with a public that hates him.
One man, a philanthropic public relations agent named Ray (Jason Bateman), believes Hancock can be liked again and made an upstanding citizen of the people, a saver of the world if you will, if he just works on his image a bit. For instance, instead of cursing at people, he should commend city officials for doing a "good job." He should also work on his take-offs and landings so he doesn't destroy city streets. And just to show he's a good sport, he should wear a uniform. Why? Because a uniform connotes purpose.
Yes, the idea of a down-on-his-luck superhero getting a public makeover is promising, but unfortunately the filmmakers don't do much with it. The idea for Hancock is rumored to have been around for a long time but the studio never committed to it because the right script was never written. After seeing it, that still seems to be the case.
This is a lackluster, uninspired movie that feels rushed and unable to capitalize on its central theme. I sensed the studio executives never truly believed in Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan's screenplay, which makes for a great treatment but not an entire feature. They might have thought putting Will Smith in the lead would cover up any loose ends, and it's possible Smith could, but not here.
One of the key problems is we never really get to know or care about the titular character, or at least not enough. It's not that he isn't interesting - he's a tired, ambitionless boozer and he lives alone on a dusty mountain range overlooking Los Angeles. All he has from his past is a pair of movie tickets to Frankenstein (1931). Hancock is obviously a guy with problems, not least that he's very old and lonely, and we want to be involved in his life, but the screenplay doesn't give us much to work with.
Hancock saves Ray's life when he flips his car onto another to avoid collision with an oncoming train, which Hancock brings to a stop with his body. Are the passersby grateful? No, they just yell, "Why didn't you just fly the car away?" and "Look at the mess you've made!" Only the kind and gentle Ray shows appreciation. He invites Hancock home for a spaghetti dinner and introduces him to his wife, Mary (Charlize Theron), and their son, Aaron (Jae Head), who seems to be the only kid who admires Hancock and doesn't call him an as*hole.
Ray thinks Hancock can turn his image around, first by paying retribution with jail time and helping out the L.A.P.D. Unfortunately, the movie throws away opportunities for humor and insight during the prison sequences, especially during a group therapy session. Nothing really comes of these scenes other than minimal dialogue and a few shots of Hancock shooting a basketball from a great distance. Okay, what does this actually tell us about him? Did we ever think Hancock couldn't make a basket? It might have led to something interesting and profound if he didn't.
About two-thirds of the way through, a major plot development occurs that I will not reveal, but I will say it didn't seem to fit properly within the greater story. The movie goes for a quick wrap-up and explanation of who Hancock is and where he comes from. I think the movie would have worked better if the prison scenes played out longer and if Hancock's transformation from public enemy to respected hero didn't happen so quickly. I wanted more buildup and doubt this guy really wanted to change. The movie also needed better villains, if any at all. The villains in Hancock are run-of-the-mill bank robbers with no motivations other than greed and wanting to be bad. They're not interesting at all.
To be sure, Hancock isn't all bad. I liked the performances and the grittiness with which director Peter Berg and director of photography Tobias Schliessler imagine Los Angeles. I also liked how Hancock is allowed to curse and speak his mind. The movie avoids cheap sentimentality and, by the end, I was grateful Hancock didn't necessarily become a goodie two-shoes but maintained a cynical attitude.
All in all, Hancock is standard superhero fare that simply fails to be exciting or intriguing beyond its setup. It's a shame, too, because the filmmakers had a great idea on their hands. Even with a super star and big budget, they made something less than adequate.