A hero in spite of it all
If you’ve seen the trailer for Hancock, the new superhero movie directed by Peter Berg and written by Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan, you may think you know what it’s about, but believe me, you don’t.
Hancock shows how predictable even the best superhero movies—Iron Man, for example—have become. Hancock is genuinely unpredictable, and watching it gives you a sense of what it must have been like for a kid in 1938, opening that issue of Action Comics and reading the first adventure of Superman: Who is this guy?
Will Smith plays John Hancock, a homeless denizen of Los Angeles—scruffy, smelly, sleeping on a bus-stop bench under newspapers, sucking the last drops from a bottle of cheap liquor. Hancock may look like any other downcast street person, but he’s not. He has, as they say, powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.
The trouble is, when he uses them, he does more harm than good. Intervening in a police chase, he demolishes a stretch of freeway and dozens of cars, leaving the bad guys’ SUV impaled on the spire of the Capitol Records building and turning a routine crime into an urban disaster. When a driver’s car stalls on a railroad crossing with a freight train barreling down, he saves the man’s life—but at the cost of totaling the bystanding cars and derailing the entire mile-long train.
The citizens of L.A.—police, politicians, TV commentators, persons on the street—wish Hancock would just stop helping. But he can’t. Something compels him to act, even in his bleary, hung-over stupor; even at the cost of making things worse. And worse yet—the public outrage has given him a surly and resentful attitude: “What are you pricks lookin’ at?” Hancock is a lost soul— a compulsively good Samaritan, but a spectacularly bungling one, swaddled in a grimy, pugnacious snarl.
But things may be about to change. The driver he saves at that railroad crossing happens to be Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), a struggling public-relations consultant. Ray realizes that Hancock has saved his life (whatever the collateral damage), and he’s thankful. He brings Hancock to dinner at his tidy home in the San Fernando Valley, where he lives with his wife Mary (Charlize Theron) and son Aaron (Jae Head). Mary takes one look at Hancock and her dismay is palpable to everyone but the still dazed and grateful Ray. “Oh God,” her face tells us. “Here comes trouble.”
Ray, like Hancock, is a bit of a lost soul himself, albeit on a smaller, more quietly desperate scale. His career, based on promoting altruism and public service, is going nowhere among the corporate boards to whom he makes his pitch. Ever-optimistic, he senses that he and Hancock can help each other, and he sets about performing an overhaul of both Hancock’s private attitude and his public image.
How all this plays out is best left to you to discover for yourself—and please, do yourself a favor and don’t let friends who’ve already seen it tell you anything. Suffice it to say that Hancock is a tale of trust and honor, and it’s populated at every turn by lost souls. Some can be redeemed, others are lost forever, and it’s not always clear which is which. Hancock is also a tale of redemption hard-won, and all the more rewarding for that.
Ngo and Gilligan’s script lapses only once into superhero cliché, in a now-standard battle-of-the-superpowers scene, laying waste to a swath of urban real estate and providing work for CGI techies. Mostly, though, the script is fresh and perceptive and keeps us guessing exactly where things are going.
Peter Berg’s direction has often seemed flailing and unstable (The Kingdom, Very Bad Things), but he’s more controlled here. Or perhaps it’s just that the instability serves the material rather than fighting it. In any case, he does good work, getting nicely textured work from Smith, Theron and Bateman as the three people swept along in a vortex they’re trying to control.
Hancock has one or two whopping plot twists, but strangely enough, for such an effects-laden spectacle, it’s the little surprises that are the most effective and that stay with us after the mayhem is over.