Director: Peter Berg
Starring: Will Smith, Charlize Theron, Jason Bateman
Running Time: 93 min.
**1/2 (out of ****)
Finally, a movie that presents the notion of what it could mean to be a superhero in the real world a dead serious, straightforward way without once blinking or compromising its vision. Too bad that movie isn't Hancock. We all know the film that did that this year and who directed it. But it makes little difference since Hancock has some good ideas of its own anyway. No, scratch that. It has GREAT ideas and if they were executed to their fullest potential without obvious studio interference and script doctoring I’d be singing its praises. There’s a four-star film stuck inside Hancock struggling to get out and there's a small taste of it during the first hour. It teases us by introducing a character and storyline of uncommon intelligence and potential, then decides to take a giant crap on it in the name of the almighty dollar.
Studio executives know what you want to see and you don’t. You’re not ready for Will Smith in a dark, gritty role. It’ll turn you off and your kids will cry. All necessary measures must be taken to preserve his bankability no matter how much it compromises the artistic integrity of the film, embarrasses the other actors or insults the viewers’ intelligence. As usual, Smith is terrific (as is his two co-stars) but this film has a problem so big even he can’t save it. And director Peter Berg actually isn’t totally to blame for once. Much likes its superhero, the film has an identity crisis and the battle that’s long been brewing between Smith the movie star and Smith the actor comes to a head. It may be time for him to finally make a choice because I’m not so sure how much longer he can have it both ways.
Hancock (Smith) is not your average superhero. He drinks, swears and sleeps on park benches. While he uses his superhuman strength to save lives and put away criminals his drunken, reckless behavior causes millions of dollars in property damage to the city of Los Angeles. Damage he refuses to take responsibility for in a court of law. As crude as his behavior is it’s interesting to note that it stops just short of being crude enough to earn the film an R rating, a designation that would have opened up far more interesting possibilities for the story. Rumor has it the film had twice received an R before being edited to earn a more family friendly PG-13. Unfortunately, you can tell.
With the citizens’ opinion of him at a record low Hancock saves the life of the right person in public relations executive Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman). Ray has a plan to reform Hancock’s image and it’s testament to the script that the plan is smart and the advice he gives him is actually sound. Less approving is Ray’s wife Mary (Charlize Theron) who worries Hancock’s presence in their lives will have a negative influence on their son Aaron (Jae Head). Had the movie continued along this clever and promising route, building on its central conceit, we could have had one of this summer’s more entertaining blockbusters. Instead a chronically wrong-headed decision is made at the halfway mark that not only undermines everything good that came before but turns this into an entirely different and far inferior film.
The marketing machine behind the movie haven’t exactly gone to great lengths to conceal the big twist but I still only had just a vague idea what it was going in. It makes little difference though because I would have been equally furious with it either way. This second half is a complete betrayal, taking all the promising ideas presented and trampling all over them to deliver a crowd- pleasing popcorn movie that’s hardly pleasing in the slightest. It’s poorly written and constructed, bogged down in pointless, complicated mythology that would be funny if it wasn’t so painful. But most frustrating of all is how good the performances are and how hard the two supporting actors try to sell a script that’s trying to humiliate them at every turn.
As the last honest P.R. guy in L.A. the criminally underrated Bateman is given maybe his most interesting big screen character yet and they piss it away like nobody’s business. But it’s Bateman’s Arrested Development co-star and Oscar winner Theron who has to do the heaviest lifting and she really tries her heart out, but there’s just no rescuing writing this absurd. When the movie started I was worried they’d just have her play the neglected wife. That actually would have been far preferable to what they end up doing with her. She’s come so far as an actress that you can’t help but ponder what she was thinking taking such a ridiculous role. It’s like going back to square one.
The first hour shows us that Smith is willing to go to the darker, interesting places this premise calls for but as it progresses it’s obvious the purpose of Vince Gilligan’s screenplay was only to preserve the main star’s drawing power. What a disappointment. Smith’s subtle work as an arrogant, self-loathing superhero deserved a film that was on the same page as him. The finale is a mishmash of My Super Ex-Girlfriend and a high-octane effects laden episode of Berg’s former TV series Chicago Hope. He even scrubs in with a cameo for old times sake.
The main problems with the film aren’t Berg’s fault but he’s yet to find his own voice as a director. As usual, he comes off as a poor man’s Michael Bay shooting everything with music video style slickness and a heavy reliance on steady cam. The CGI here looks cheesy but given the situation it’s supposed to be over-the-top and silly so that’s fine. Laugh all you want but it takes a lot of talent to make films as entertainingly awful and fun as Bay’s. Imposters need not apply.
Berg’s first feature was the critically acclaimed Friday Night Lights, which he later turned into a critically acclaimed (but ratings challenged) TV series. He must really love it a lot because he’s been remaking it ever since. First came The Rundown, which felt like Friday Night Lights in a jungle. More recently he directed The Kingdom, which was essentially Friday Night Lights in Iraq. And now this, which still looks and feels like Friday Night Lights, but this time on the streets of L.A. There’s nothing wrong with sticking with what works and having a specific vision as a director (even if it’s someone else’s), but it should be evolving somewhat…shouldn’t it? What’s saddest is during the film’s first hour there were glimmers of hope that it was going to.
The Hancock script has been in development hell for so long the story behind it is almost legendary. Vincent Ngo originally wrote it on spec in 1996 under the far superior title Tonight, He Comes. Just that title implies a dark, involving character study and basically everything this turned out not to be. It was tossed from producer to producer until Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind) got his grubby paws on it and co-produced it with Michael Mann. How Mann, who specializes in dark, gritty, intelligent films could be involved with a mess like this is a debate for another time. But I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that what he started with was far different than the finished product.
Despite its suspect production history and issues with the director I went into this fully expecting to enjoy it. This summer, The Dark Knight proved you can have your cake and eat it too, entertaining the masses while still delivering a story of substance. Something really got screwed up here. Everyone I know saw this but very, very few told me they liked it. Yes, it made a lot of money but it could have made even more with the right approach. Bad word of mouth proved it.
Will Smith recently drew the ire of film enthusiasts with the announcement he’d be starring in a big-budget remake of the beloved cult film Oldboy under the direction of Steven Spielberg. Smith can take solace in the fact that most people are probably so upset about this because of Spielberg’s involvement, not his. Or more accurately, they’re justifiably worried that Spielberg (who hasn’t exactly been on a hot streak lately) will neuter the story to attract the masses, which is exactly what happened here.
Smith has gone far carrying mediocre crowd-pleasing movies like The Pursuit of Happyness and I Am Legend because he’s so talented and likable but it’s time to move to the next level and work with better directors. He’s played safe and comfortable for too long and probably knows it. It’s the producers that need to take a hint. Hancock had all the goods to have been something really special. Instead, it ends up being a public service announcement for studio test screenings.