HANCOCKDirected by Peter Berg, written by Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan, with Will Smith, Jason Bateman, Charlize Theron, Eddie Marsan and Jae Head. A Sony Pictures release. 93 minutes. Now playing.For venues and times, see listings. Rating: NNN
Say what you will about WillSmith’s box-office swagger, the guy takes the occasional risk.
Though it falls apart in its second half, last winter’s I Am Legend is a formally daring and surprisingly risky blockbuster, featuring the most complex performance of the actor’s career.And Smith’s new film, Hancock, may be the most divisive superhero movie since Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns.From one angle, it’s a mess, a noisy, borderline-incoherent action picture about a drunken ass who destroys almost as many lives as he saves, thanks to a combination of tunnel-vision crime-fighting and reckless disregard for the people he’s supposed to serve.
But from another angle, it’s a fascinating exploration of the nuts and bolts of a superhero’s world. When a hero captures a bunch of highway shooters by impaling their van atop the Capitol Records building, who gets them down?
Hancock casts Smith as the opposite of his usual quick-thinking, compassionate leading man. Mysterious, invulnerable and really, really cranky, Hancock is not your average hero. For one thing, he drinks. A lot. He has a tendency to leave a lot of wreckage in his wake. And he tends to respond badly when people demand things of him, like “Get me out of this burning building.”
But when he rescues idealistic image consultant Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) from certain death, Hancock becomes his latest celebrity-rehab project – much to the dismay of Ray’s wife, Mary (Charlize Theron), who’d really rather be a few zip codes away from this walking disaster area.
Once Ray convinces Hancock to start acting like a proper hero – to wear a uniform, lay off the booze and maybe thank the police for their help once in a while – the movie edges into Singer territory, taking the time to consider the terrible loneliness of its godlike protagonist.
The midsection, with its carefully rationed tidbits of backstory and pathos, is really something, and Smith is pretty terrific, struggling with his super-sized emotional issues while still doing all the flying and smashing that CGI will allow. Bateman and Theron, who had such weird chemistry when she guested on Arrested Development, are also remarkably credible in their more conventional roles; Bateman in particular does a fine job of being an ordinary human being who lives in an extraordinary world.
But like I Am Legend, the last act has problems. Huge ones, actually.
Plot points that are supposed to pay off in an urgent confrontation don’t line up as well as they should. Even revisionist superhero movies need to establish specific rules for themselves, and Hancock’s universe has a couple of ill-defined logic points that turn into major problems. And Eddie Marsan’s bank-robbing villain seems to have lost a key scene or two in the editing room.
The movie is also undermined at key moments by Peter Berg’s directorial choices. If you’ll recall, Berg’s fixation on presenting complicated action sequences as a flurry of increasingly tight close-ups similarly dents the big climax of his last movie, The Kingdom.
The final scenes pull it all together, though. In its lovely little coda, Hancock finally becomes the movie it wants to be – an almost lyrical consideration of what it means to be forever apart from the people who depend on you, and to watch everyday life proceed along a separate track from your own.
That may not be what anyone else wants from a superhero movie these days, but it totally works for me.