Screenwriters: Vincent Ngo, Vince Gilligan
Starring: Will Smith, Charlize Theron, Jason Bateman, Eddie Marsan
Running Time: 92 mins
As the undisputed king of the populist summer blockbuster, Will Smith could probably film himself watching paint dry for two hours and still turn it into a smash hit movie. So it doesn't really matter that his new film Hancock, a tale of a down-and-out superpowered vigilante embracing heroism, isn't very good - it's destined for a box office victory regardless.
The film opens with crooks tearing down the freeway following a succesful heist. Hungover and crashed out on a bench, the Bourbon-guzzling superhero Hancock (Smith) is urged into action by a school kid who spots the chase on TV news. After bringing the robbers to justice in a robust, $9 million-worth-of-damage manner, public opinion swings violently against Hancock.
Meanwhile, Jason Bateman's hotshot executive Ray Embrey ("the Bono of PR") is struggling to get his new branding project off the ground. After an encounter with Hancock, in which the deadbeat hero saves his life, Ray targets Hancock as a new project that he can spin into a success. The two men gradually forge a relationship - much to the chagrin of Ray's wife Mary (Charlize Theron) - that both hope will be mutually beneficial.
Hancock director Peter Berg has proved a dependable filmmaker in recent years. His Friday Night Lights and The Kingdom were disciplined, fluent slices of mainstream cinema. Here that isn't the case. What begins as a light, jovial action comedy, taking gentle prods at the superhero genre, careers off into unbearably melodramatic territory at the half-way point, triggered by a laboured plot twist that is painfully obvious from the moment Smith talks about being "the last of my kind". This desperation for profundity, the attempt to inject seriousness into a film that maybe doesn't warrant it ultimately causes Hancock to unravel completely.
Its worst offence, though, is failing in each of the three genres it touches bases with. As a comedy, it isn't particularly funny; as an action film it doesn't raise the bar; and its attempts to paint a real-world comic book fall short of the standard set by Heroes. The film also carries an incredibly flimsy antagonist Red (Eddie Marsan), a character who gets barely five minutes of screen time. At times Hancock even lurches towards turning Smith and Theron's characters into baddies.
The film has a couple of inventive sequences. A selection of Hancock YouTube clips, including one that shows the hero dealing with a beached whale by hurling it into the sea, are quite fun. Berg also manages to create a tense robbery by showing the hero blast through a bank's windows, grab a criminal, then speed out through the other side of the building in a split second.
Smith is as watchable as ever but clearly on autopilot. His reluctance to really stretch himself as an actor is baffling considering his talent and natural charisma. Bateman, portraying the level-headed everyman with Sahara-dry wit, seems to have forgotten that he stopped playing Michael Bluth two years ago, while Theron sleepwalks through her role, only to justify her presence in the risible finale.
Hancock is a curious failure that contains interesting ideas about comic book archetypes and people's expectations of heroes. It's similar to last year's Shoot 'Em Up, a flawed action film that unsuccessfully tried to push genre boundaries by satirising its predecessors. Hancock never manages to execute a satisfying subversion of the superhero movie or come close to establishing a consistent tone. It has the feel of a film that's been test-screened, reconfigured, re-cut and focus-grouped into oblivion.
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