Thursday, July 3, 2008

Hancock: Identity crisis

Hancock (2008) • View trailer for Hancock
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for vulgarity and action violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.3.08
Buy DVD: Hancock • Buy Blu-Ray: Hellboy II: The Golden Army [Blu-ray]

Movies don't surprise me very often — and I mean really surprise me — but Hancock isn't at all what I expected.
When it looks as if Ray (Jason Bateman, up in the air) and his car are about to
get squashed by an approaching train, Los Angeles' randomly helpful superhero,
Hancock (Will Smith), does a good deed but still destroys too much public
property in the process. Ray's challenge, which he subsequently embraces, is to
get the city to like its resident champion ... despite his flaws.

We can be forgiven for believing, thanks to the misleading publicity campaign, that Will Smith's summer entry is a lowbrow comedy about a homeless, disenfranchised superhero with a bad attitude and no concern for his public image. It's a reasonably clever concept; nowhere is it written that all superheroes should (or will) possess Superman's moral integrity and flag-waving belief in truth, justice and the American way.

But the previews made this flick look like a monumentally unfunny echo of My Super Ex-Girlfriend, the 2006 debacle that did nothing to assist Uma Thurman's already sagging career. It appeared as though even Smith's considerable charm — and box-office clout — might not be up to the challenge of selling Hancock.

Now that the film has arrived ... well, I'm still not sure.

During its first act, director Peter Berg's film is every bit as clumsy and forced as the coming attractions suggested. But something unexpected happens about halfway in, at which point Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan's script veers into territory that I can't discuss here, at the risk of giving too much away.

And the film, up to this point an uneasy blend of low comedy and social conscience, becomes a poignant drama.

This shift, alas, creates fresh problems.

At an economical 95 minutes, Hancock would have been a zippy little summer comedy with so-so special effects and a modestly engaging premise. We approach such films with minimal expectations and are willing to forgive lapses in continuity or plot logic.

But when the mood turns serious, and the details regarding the title character's backstory finally emerge, it's a whole new ballgame ... and one that must withstand the numerous new questions that erupt. Ngo and Gilligan's script — which apparently kicked around Hollywood for quite a few years — isn't up to the challenge.

Or Berg wasn't.

Either way, Hancock emerges as a compromised product. It feels as if some studio wonk, bothered by the tonal shift, came along with a chainsaw and hacked away chunks of exposition. This story apparently has some key villains, aside from the criminal riff-raff Hancock dispatches without breaking into a sweat; we definitely need to know more about these major baddies, but answers there are none.

It's an intriguing paradox: Just as Hancock becomes much more interesting, it also becomes more frustrating.

Smith's character — full name, John Hancock — is introduced as he emerges from an alcoholic haze on a public city bench, reluctantly prodded into catching some minor-level thugs evading capture during a high-speed freeway pursuit. Hancock goes about this as sloppily as one would expect from an inebriated superhero; when the dust settles, the bad guys are captured ... but Los Angeles has suffered millions of dollars' worth of property damage.

People are honked off, to say the least.

Cut to self-employed public-relations exec Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), whose bad day takes a worse turn when gridlock leaves his car straddling a train track ... with a train barreling in his direction. Unable to move the vehicle, and paralyzed like a deer in headlights, poor Ray seems doomed. Fortunately, Hancock delivers a last-minute save.

While destroying the entire train in the process, of course.

Ray, grateful to be alive, smells opportunity; he glibly insists that Hancock can erase his horrific public image with an attitude adjustment and some contrition. Ray's wife, Mary (Charlize Theron), isn't so sure; she views Hancock through more practical eyes, and warns her husband not to get his hopes up.

"I know his type," she insists. "He's the sort who breaks things."

The building relationship dynamic between Ray and Hancock is nicely handled, with Bateman and Smith playing off each other reasonably well: the former being insistent just short of getting smacked across the room, the latter gradually thawing. Considering how offensively unpleasant Smith makes Hancock in this film's early scenes, it's nice to see the actor's substantial charm emerge as the story continues.

The random vulgarities, on the other hand, are less appealing (and, it would seem, a token attempt to win the more "mature" PG-13 rating). Hancock initially handles conflict with the impatience of a petulant 5-year-old, to the point of absurdity.

When the local bully (out of curiosity, why is this little smart-aleck French?) picking on Ray and Mary's young son gets in Hancock's face, the solution may be good for a quick laugh, but one wonders why the kid's parents don't arrive with lawyers. (That's the sort of nonresponse we'd expect of a disposable summer comedy.)

And is it really necessary to show us the results, when Hancock shoves one thug's head up a second guy's fundament? That scene would have played perfectly fine, utilizing our imaginations and the wincing reactions from the assembled bystanders.

The special-effects employed throughout Hancock's minor triumphs and major miscalculations are somewhat slapdash by contemporary standards; there's no sense of real-world size or scale, for example, when he smashes through massive buildings or hurls a beached whale back out to sea. The sound effects carry the illusions far better than the visuals.

Still, things move in an amusing direction as Hancock, definitely trying to better himself, forces too much politeness into his new interactions with police officers. ("You're doing a good job," he repeats, just as Ray instructed.) Smith has excellent comic timing, and it's easy to see how he'd have been attracted to those portions of the script.

But then ... well ... things get weird. The film that started out as My Super Ex-Girlfriend morphs into Spider-Man.

The various character relationships shift by necessity, the story no longer amusing to any degree. Smith's Hancock becomes earnest rather too quickly, as if he has smartened up in a heartbeat. Sadly, this means that he becomes less entertaining; the performance is better with some attitude.

The final result is unusual: worth watching as a curiosity, and certainly better than the average brain-dead summer comedy ... but quite flawed nonetheless. Ultimately, I'd have to say that Ngo and Gilligan had a promising concept but no closing act: a classic 10-word "pitch proposal" that might have gotten the film green-lighted, but left all concerned with no solid narrative.

Next time somebody starts a conversation about why and how some films get made, this one will fuel the notion that too many Hollywood suits have no idea what they're doing.

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