Studios like an actor who is a “sure thing,” and Will Smith is one of those. He’s an extremely bankable superstar who is seemingly loved by all age groups and ethnicities, because he’s likable. Look at his top four grossing films, ranked in order from highest to lowest, “Independence Day,” “I Am Legend,” “Men in Black,” and “Men in Black II,” and you will see that, with one exception, his biggest successes have come from his ability to bring comic relief to an action film. And if you’ve seen the trailer for his latest film, “Hancock,” it looks like that formula continues. But does it?
John Hancock is a boozing, foul tempered, easily angered guy who just doesn’t give a shit. In the beginning of the film, he’s drunk, spread out on a bus stop bench, when a young boy approaches him and points to a TV. “Bad guys,” the kid says. “What, you want a cookie? Get the hell out of my face,” Hancock snaps. Walking away, the boy calls him a “jackass.” For whatever reason, Hancock decides to put an end to the dangerous car chase that’s taking place on the L.A. freeway, but in the process causes millions of dollars in damages. To say that this guy isn’t loved is an understatement.
And yet someone does see the good in Hancock, and his name is Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), an idealistic public relations guy who has been largely unsuccessful in getting corporations to make the world a better place. (Are we truly surprised they don’t want to give up their millions?) He believes that all Hancock needs is a personality overhaul, which means that he should be kind and courteous, clean up his image, and stop being a drunk. Hancock is initially reluctant, especially when Embrey suggests he should take responsibility for his actions and serve a jail sentence. The goal is to go away for a while, so he can show the people of L.A. how much they need him. At this point, we cue the montage of Hancock having some reflective moments, and then deciding to have faith in Embrey. We see him starting to change.
We’ll stop right there in our synopsis, because up until this point, we may not like Hancock – he’s truly a jackass – but we can see how this film might play out. And, we can see its potential. Ah, we say, “‘Hancock’ is about the transformative power of love. It shows us that to make a difference in the world; we just have to start with one person.” You know, it’s going to be the superhero equivalent of “Pay it Forward.” Let me tell you, I was on board for this direction. But screenwriters Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan had other things on their minds. They remembered that Hancock was a superhero – he’s immortal, can fly, has super strength, and has skin that’s impervious to weapons – and realized that they might have to explain why he’s “the last of his kind.” Thus begins the unraveling of “Hancock.”
Ray has a wife, Mary (Charlize Theron), and a son, Aaron (Jae Head), from his first marriage. Throughout much of the early scenes, we can tell that Mary has “issues” with Hancock. We don’t know what those might be, until about Act II, when she reveals some pretty important facts about herself and Hancock. The problem with this big revelation is that 1) it completes changes the direction of the film and 2) it raises more questions than it answers. An origin story should make the audience go “Ah, I got it” not “What the hell? How does that work? Now what?” To add insult to injury, in Act III, the film introduces us to a villain, a bank robber named Red (Eddie Marsan), who’s about six inches shorter than Hancock and has a Southern twang. Yeah, not very fear-inducing. Because the writers created such a strong superhero, they obviously didn’t know how to take him down, so they invented an incredibly stupid “Kryptonite” for him. Needless to say, by the end of this celluloid wreck, I was more than ready to exit the cinema and put the whole experience behind me.
Where did “Hancock” go wrong? Let me count the ways. First, the writing. Not only does “Hancock” feel like two different movies spliced together, but the jokes are just plain embarrassing. For instance, the writers milk a running gag that there’s hell to pay whenever someone calls Hancock a jackass. So in one scene, a French middle-school aged boy calls him this and he gets jettisoned into the sky. In another juvenile moment, Hancock is in prison, and several prisoners won’t let him pass. He warns them that if they don’t, he will shove the one guy’s head up the other’s ass. And, with predictability, he does. (Someone call Jim Carrey. His crass joke from “Bruce Almighty” has been stolen.) Second, the film has a $150 million budget, and it’s only a 90-minute film. You can imagine how many special effects you have to endure. Don’t get me wrong, I like CGI. Just not in every bloody scene.
It’s interesting to compare “Hancock” with “Iron Man,” which is undoubtedly this summer’s No. 1 hit. It, too, is directed by a quadruple hyphenate – a writer, director, producer and actor. The main difference is that Jon Favreau was able to turn in a far superior product for $10 million less and 36 minutes longer, and Peter Berg, well, he gave us “Hancock.” I can probably provide you with a list of superhero films that sucked harder than this Will Smith vehicle – “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” comes immediately to mind – but let me tell you, it’s only a slight margin of difference. Unless you’re a huge Smith fan, I would suggest sparing yourself the disappointment of “Hancock” altogether or at the very least waiting until it’s out on DVD.
Peter Berg (director) / Vincent Ngo, Vince Gilligan (screenplay)
CAST: Will Smith … John Hancock
Charlize Theron … Mary Embrey
Jason Bateman … Ray Embrey
Jae Head … Aaron Embrey
Eddie Marsan … Red
David Mattey … Man Mountain
Maetrix Fitten … Matrix