An intriguing high concept is undermined by low-grade dramaturgy in “Hancock.” This misguided attempt to wring a novel twist on the superhero genre has a certain whiff of “The Last Action Hero” about it, with Will Smith playing an indestructible crime-buster in a pointedly real-world context. Although it will inevitably open very large, this odd and perplexing aspiring tentpole will provide a real test of Smith’s box office invincibility.
The central idea of Vy Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan’s script — of Smith’s John Hancock being an ornery, unwilling hero who escapes from his ordained role in life via booze and general cantankerousness — is amusing and plausible enough to sustain the first section of the film. What the writers and director Peter Berg do with the concept in the end, however, is nowhere near sufficiently thought out, and narrative illogic and missed opportunities plague the film increasingly as it cartwheels through its surprisingly brief running time.
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When the world-famous Hancock reluctantly swings into action — he can fly at supersonic speed, lift any weight and is impervious to all weapons — his drunken recklessness invariably causes more damage than it’s worth. Although valuable to the police, Hancock has a bad name with the public for his destructiveness, impudence and all-around bad attitude; an adjunct to this is his foul language, which treads the very edge of PG-13 permissiveness and will no doubt catch many July 4 weekend kid-herding parents unhappily unaware.
As much in need of rehab as this week’s tabloid celebrity, the raggedly attired Hancock finds an eager savior in PR whiz Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman). Rescued from certain death by the rasty hero, Ray returns the favor by inviting him to dinner with wife Mary (Charlize Theron) and son Aaron (Jae Head) and announcing he’s going to remake Hancock’s image. The strongman’s first step will be to submit to rehab and anger-management training, along with some prison time (although Hancock resists wearing an actual superhero outfit because it’s too “homo”). What he shortly does to two tough-talking inmates in the pen crudely literalizes the taunt about sticking your head where the sun don’t shine.
Such vulgar goofiness is one thing in an Adam Sandler film, but doesn’t sit well in the rough-and-ready realism of Berg’s raw visuals, which grievously misapply hand-held jitteriness to material that demands more precise stylization.
The genre satire and numerous Will Smith moments, with the star throwing off the attitude-laden quips and looks auds expect from him, carry the first half without too much trouble, in anticipation of where the film will go from there.
Where it goes, unfortunately, is right down the tubes. All along, there’s something oddly hostile about Mary’s attitude toward Hancock, and at the 55-minute mark, a major revelation sends the story veering off into territory that feels unmapped even in the minds of the filmmakers. All the potential the premise seemed to offer is frittered away, mind-boggling gaps of logic come to the fore, and arbitrary plot devices serve to shortchange a story that could have gone in much more interesting directions.
Even in his derelict state, why would the presumably super-studly Hancock have no lady friends? Why would humiliated criminals ever think they could strike back at their nemesis? More broadly speaking, what about an invincible superhero who could take power into his own hands and become a self-appointed dictator who arbitrates on good and evil, sometimes to ill effect? Putting a character like Hancock in the recognizable modern world, rather than in a cartoonish context, creates all sorts of possibilities that are willfully ignored by the filmmakers, who instead have come up with a concoction that is both overwrought and severely undernourished.
That said, the effects are snazzy, even if they pass by quite quickly, and there’s enough going on to keep audiences watching, if not entirely happy. Smith, Theron and Bateman capably handle the main roles, but such is the skimpiness of the scenario that no further characters make any impact.