Hancock squanders potential greatness with lame humor and a half-baked hero

Will Smith superhero movies Directed by Peter Berg. Written by Vince Gilligan and Vincent Ngo. Starring Will Smith, Jason Bateman, Charlize Theron, and Jae Head. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.
The pursuit of crappiness: Will Smith explores his inner derelict in Hancock.
The pursuit of crappiness: Will Smith explores his inner derelict in Hancock.

The Sixth Sense, starring Bruce Willis as a dead man, was writer-director M. Night Shyamalan's breakthrough, but its follow-up, Unbreakable, starring Bruce Willis as the walking dead reborn as a superhero, was the filmmaker's masterpiece. It remains the most quietly influential of all recent superhero movies, the unacknowledged template for directors looking to make the indestructible vulnerable, the enormously heroic smaller than life. Shyamalan — now on the outs with former fanboys, who bemoan storytelling that's turned to navel-gazing — stripped comic books of their fantastical, silly excesses and got to the meat of the matter: The noblest hero is the one who overcomes doubt and fear to save the world.

There are hints of that greatness buried deep within Hancock, a superhero movie starring a hero who doesn't want the job. As the unbreakable title character, Will Smith is a Man of Steel who'd rather melt into a puddle of cheap booze. Like Willis' David Dunn, John Hancock knows he has a calling — he'd just rather not pick up. Both men mope and wander and kvetch, until someone comes along to shake them out of their stupor and remind them that they are, in fact, quite super.

Which isn't to suggest that Hancock is a worthy heir to Unbreakable, not by a giant leap in a single bound. It's too silly and too slight to merit such praise, especially as it trudges through its first third with ho-hum jokes tethered to rinky-dink special effects. Hancock's so indefensibly enh during its first half-hour that it almost doesn't recover; like its hero, the movie comes off a touch suicidal.

But slowly and clumsily, Hancock lurches toward greatness. Its redemption occurs long after the film has spent scene after scene — all present in the ubiquitous trailers — proving that Hancock is an alcoholic and an asshole: cruel to children, criminal toward criminals, and a menace to Los Angeles. Smith, clad in tatters and covered in grime, plays him like an alky Ali; Hancock is beefy, hung over, pissed off, and spoiling for a fight.

Even after he meets his redeemer — Jason Bateman as Ray Embrey, the first heroic public-relations man in the history of cinema — we're reminded over and over of Hancock's misguided, destructive, half-assed acts of heroism. The joke wears exhaustingly thin, and Hancock stalls. But finally, and so gradually that it may test your patience, the movie unspools its darkest and deepest-felt secrets — the origin story that's really never fully revealed, accompanied by Hancock's admission that he's a son of a bitch because he can't remember being anything but alone, unloved, unwanted. "What kind of a bastard must I have been," he tells Ray and his wife Mary (Charlize Theron), "for nobody to claim me?"

Hancock is meant to be a hero; it's his purpose. Only he doesn't know why, and he doesn't know how. Neither, it seems, do director Peter Berg and writers Vince Gilligan and Vincent Ngo. All seem unsure of how to transition the title character from bum to superman, and rely too heavily on broad comedy's shove or overheated action's kick. Part of this stems from Berg's directorial style: herky-jerky cameras, shoved in folks' faces and up their noses. It worked well when he was illuminating cousin Buzz Bissinger's Friday Night Lights; not so much during his bloodthirsty trek through The Kingdom last year. There's nothing subtle about Berg's bludgeoning style; he directs angry.

But when he's exhausted enough to pause for the deep breath, Berg stumbles across scenes from a better movie, as when Hancock turns himself in to the authorities and lands in prison. Or the moment when Hancock discovers that he's not, in fact, alone, and when good news goes bad. Or even the scenes during which Ray attempts, rather futilely, to sell corporate America on the idea of giving to a cause.

Fact is, Hancock's more Ray's heroic journey than its title character's. Bateman, who's affable and genuine whenever onscreen, plays nothing more than an everyday do-gooder whose Batmobile is a piece-of-shit Volvo and whose sidekicks are a wife with a long neck and a wary eye, and a son (Jae Head) who just wants to believe. Bateman and Smith make a dynamic duo: Smith, whose wide-screen sincerity remains his greatest asset, beautifully communicates the transition from shithead to champion.

Last week on The Colbert Report, Smith proclaimed Hancock nothing more than another summer superhero movie, which is its biggest flaw: It doesn't take itself as seriously as it should and undercuts a final act that should have — and so could have — packed a mighty emotional wallop. Noted a colleague after a preview screening: "Here's a superhero movie that could have used more pretension."

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