Thursday, July 03, 2008

Hancock / *** (PG-13)

John Hancock: Will Smith
Ray Embry: Jason Bateman
Mary Embry: Charlize Theron
Aaron Embry: Jae Head
Red: Eddie Marsan

Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Peter Berg. Written by Vincent Ngo & Vince Gilligan. Running time: 92 min. Rated PG-13 (for some intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and language).

Who says all our superheroes have to be paragons of perfection? Or even noble outcasts, like Batman or Spider-Man? As our society gets more pessimistic and self-destructive, should not also our heroes? As sci-fi/fantasy figures they are a reflection of the human condition. And so we are given Hancock. He is an alcoholic bull in a china shop who also happens to be able to fly and seems to be indestructible.

Will Smith portrays Hancock as essentially a bum who seems as bothered by the business of being as superhero as the citizens of Los Angeles are to have him as their guardian. “Why don’t you go to New York?!” pleads the Chief of Police after Hancock sets a new record for property damage during the pursuit of a band of hooligans in an SUV. The people don’t like their hero, and Hancock doesn’t much like himself either.

One day Hancock happens into the life of a public relations agent in yet another costly rescue to the city. But the PR man actually feels gratitude toward Hancock for saving his life. His name is Ray Embry and is played by the grossly underrated actor Jason Bateman (“Arrested Development”). Ray has been struggling to sell his own personal crusade to change the world with a big business advertising campaign called “All Heart”, but he makes it his new mission to change public opinion of Hancock.

Ray’s wife Mary (Charlize Theron, “Aeon Flux”) is wary of her husband’s new cause, which promises even less success than his “All Heart” campaign. Hancock’s unwillingness to change his attitude and the city’s disgust of him makes a change of image unlikely for the hero, but Ray may just be the PR genius he claims when the first proposal he has for Hancock is to turn himself in for the charges against him by the City of Los Angeles. Hancock goes reluctantly and thus begins the unfolding of the mystery of just who Hancock is.

“Hancock” is a film that cuts to the chase and is very focused in the delivery of its story. This is Hancock’s story and nothing else. There are a few big twists to be revealed, which is why I will go further into the plot. Unfortunately, director Peter Berg shows us his hand on its biggest surprise far too early in the film. This not-as-surprising-as-it-should-be development happens at about the half way point and should come as a great shock, but we see it coming a mile away.

What Berg and screenwriters Vincent Ngo (“Hostage”) and Vince Gilligan (“The X-Files”) do very well is resist the urge to tell a typical superhero story with an epic crisis and a supervillain. There is an attempt to provide a villain that feels like it was pasted in to the story. That is partially because it doesn’t belong there and partially because Berg keeps the movie squarely focused on Hancock and his personal journey of discovery. Berg does a better job here incorporating action into the larger frame of the story than in his previous film “The Kingdom”. In that politically charged movie the story ended once the bullets began to fly. In this one the action is much more supportive of the overall story.

Hancock’s story is really America’s. Both have the eagle as their symbol. Like America, Hancock finds himself to be the only superpower amidst a world that resents him for it. He has lost his way and can no longer remember who he really is. He wants to do what’s right, but lets his emotions rule his actions rather than trying to understand what it is the rest of the world needs from him. Like America, Hancock needs to redefine his own image of himself before he can do any good for anyone else.

I read some critics claiming that Smith is a bit off his game on this one. His performance is of a more serious nature, lacking some of the lighthearted charm that has made him so popular. Yet his performance isn’t a far cry from his role in last holiday season’s hit “I Am Legend”, which was one of his highest praised portrayals.

This is not to say “Hancock” isn’t funny. Smith’s superhero is filled with sardonic humor, while Bateman fills in the lighter laughs. In fact there are many scenes in which Bateman threatens to steal the show. Bateman has this unique ability to put someone down while enthusiastically encouraging them. The scene where he goes over Hancock’s image problems is a wonderful showcase for the actor, who gets to shower the hero with praise and criticism while Hancock just stands there and takes it.

“Hancock” is certainly not a perfect movie. Its flaws will be evident to anyone. Nor is it a lofty film. Despite its darker themes and sometimes serious nature, it remains entertaining and doesn’t overstay its welcome. What keeps it balanced is its sharp focus on the central characters without many subplot distractions. It is a good summer blockbuster entry that fits right into its 4th of July weekend release slot.

No comments: