Hancock proves two things beyond a shadow of doubt: any attempt to do something different in Hollywood is a risky business, but it’s a damn sight less risky if you can convince Will Smith to come along for the ride!
Amongst reviewers the weight of opinion is that Hancock begins with promise but suffers from a flimsy narrative and poor execution. Audiences have flocked to see it anyway, which is no surprise given Smith’s starring role as the down and out, cantankerous and boozing superhero, John Hancock.
If there were any questions about Smith’s audience pulling superpowers, they have well and truly been put to rest: Hancock is the actor’s eighth consecutive number one opener and eighth consecutive film to break the US$100M mark.
Of course, making truck loads of money at the Box Office is no indication that a movie is any good, and there is some justification for faulting the execution of the movie. So who’s right, the reviewers or the audience?
Gruff and shabby, Hancock’s crime fighting credentials are established at the outset with Smith’s characteristic humour. Despite himself, it seems, Hancock rises to the occasion whenever the situation calls for it: whisky bottle in hand and flying under the influence he takes on the crims, breaking numerous laws, offending the populace and causing untold damage to the city of Los Angeles along the way. He isn’t liked by the citizenry, the police don’t want his help and the City wants to send him to jail. He’s miserable and he wallows in the abuse thrown at him by one and all. This is about as self-destructive as an indestructible superhero can get (which begs a question: if you are indestructible, how do you cut your hair?)
Some critics fault the movie for a transition part way through that sees the tone change from an action packed, humorous (somewhat juvenile) romp to something darker. To be fair the transition is not perfect. It’s not smooth. There is a sense of discontinuity between the two parts. But criticism that the movie’s promise is lost is unfounded. In fact it’s precisely this shift in focus that makes the movie a worthy addition to the superhero genre. The action and humour persist, but the story achieves a degree of (super)human drama, sophistication and depth. We’ve been introduced to the drunken superhero with attitude, but his behaviour is a symptom of something else and the transition in the movie is to understand why he is the way he is.
What’s most interesting about director Peter Berg and writers Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan’s take on the superhero theme is not that their superhero is an obnoxious, destructive alcoholic. Although that’s novel and good fun. Far more interesting, Hancock examines with pathos what it means to be unique, which is typically the lot of a superhero. No man is an island unto himself, and the same goes for the superman. Hancock is miserable because he is alone, and he’s alone because, as far as he knows, he’s unique: his powers are a gift and a curse because they isolate him from those his very nature drives him to protect.
There is of course another price to be paid by the superhero – one we’ve seen many times before, but which this movie examines with intelligence and pathos: love of a woman (or man) is invariably the Achilles heel of the superhero, a vulnerability that is always exploited by the criminal fraternity. Where Hancock has a more sophisticated take on this is the recognition that the gift of super powers and the charge to protect humanity is a total commitment and the price to be paid is the joy of family.
Which is not to say that Hancock is denied the love of a woman. He could have it, but it involves a choice: to give up the superhero vocation, to become mortal. And it’s a legitimate choice, one that would confirm his humanity. But what makes him a superhero is that he is driven by something more: his love of humanity. And we come to understand that as much a symptom of his loneliness, his obnoxious behaviour is that of a jilted lover, and his love is for the people he protects.
What makes this take on the superhero theme worth watching then is that it’s about people and relationships. Action and effects are well and truly in service to the story, which is where they should be. The movie’s strengths are the script, with its humour, drama and pathos, and the performances of its leads, Smith, Jason Bateman as Ray Embrey, a public relations consultant on a mission to save the world and Hancock, and Charlize Theron, as Embrey’s wife with one huge secret. It’s not perfect; some of the behaviour and reactions of the characters seem a little out of context, but overall this is a highly enjoyable fusion of comedy, action and drama and an original take on the superhero story.
If this is a sign of Peter Berg’s rising star, I’m increasingly reassured by his involvement with the Dune project.