Here’s a movie that’s going to piss some people off. Hancock casts Will Smith against type as a sullen, drunken superhero who hates everybody. He would rather chug whiskey than deal with criminals, yet something drives him to try to help out civilization anyway. His being drunk means things get accomplished in a disorderly manner, with bad guy vehicles getting impaled on skyscrapers and beached whales getting tossed into sailboats.
The movie strives to be so much more than your average superhero flick, and that’s likely to put some people off. There are scenes that are funnier than anything I’ve seen this year. Yet, director Peter Berg and Will Smith have somehow made a “real” movie about a man with superhero powers. Like M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, this film wants to go a little deeper than the usual glossy approach to superheroes.
Smith is Hancock, a vagabond who lies around on city benches, sleeping off colossal drinking binges. When we first see him, he’s being awakened by a child who beckons him to go out and perform his civic duty. After a cranky exchange with the kid, the child walks away, calling Hancock a very bad name.
Hancock’s image is in the crapper due to all of the damage he causes when fighting crime. There are warrants out for his arrest, and TV personalities like Nancy Grace call him a menace. Truth is, the big lug just wants to be loved, and he gets some help in the form of Ray Embrey (the ever-reliable Jason Bateman), a public relations consultant. Ray’s life is saved by Hancock in an act that, characteristically, causes millions of dollars in damage. Out of gratitude, Ray wants to make the world love Hancock. Hancock, in his own drunken and cranky way, does indeed want the world to accept him.
Part of Ray’s plan to improve Hancock’s public profile is to have him serve a prison sentence, confident that the inevitable rise in crime while he’s incarcerated will make the public and authorities want him rather than loathe him. There is a sight gag during the prison sequence that had me on the floor, and I applaud the filmmakers—and the rating board—for allowing it in a PG-13 film.
Hancock meets Ray’s family, which consists of his suspicious wife Mary (Charlize Theron) and his son Aaron (Jae Head), who insists upon being a Hancock fan, mainly because Hancock saved his dad. The sequences where Aaron attempts to befriend Hancock are genuinely sweet.
The first chunk of the film is played mostly for laughs, and those laughs are bountiful. The sight of a drunken Hancock terrorizing thugs by whisking their vehicle into the sky and purposefully dropping it is great, sinister fun. Hancock also, in a very politically incorrect moment, launches a child bully into the air, giving him some time to think about his bullying ways before being caught on the way down. Berg and Smith employ a rather dark, even sick, sense of humor that will have you laughing and shocked at the same time.
Berg uses some of the shaky cam and soundtrack tricks so prevalent in his Friday Night Lights. I half expected a football to bounce off Hancock’s head, followed by a pep talk from coach Billy Bob Thornton. The movie goes for more dramatic punch than laughs in its finale, and while I preferred the funny stuff, the dramatic aspects are done well enough not to hurt the movie.
On my way out of my screening, I heard one critic blasting the movie for “not knowing what it is.” While I do think the film tries to be many things at once—comedy, drama, genre pic—I also think it succeeds at being them. I had a lot of fun with this movie, and it gave me the sense that I was seeing something different and adventurous. The audience will split on this one, and I’m over on the happy side.