Hancock rescues the summer

Depending on who you are there is some good news and some bad news about Hancock.

Depending on who you are there is some good news and some bad news about Hancock.

If you love superhero movies like The Incredible Hulk–where the traditional comic book structure of hero defeats super villain, finds romance and battles inner turmoil remains untouched¬–then you will most likely be disappointed by Hancock.

But, if you’ve had your fill of traditional superhero films after Marvel’s one-two punch with the entertaining but still conventional Iron Man and the aforementioned, insipid Hulk, then the genre-twisting, Will Smith-vehicle Hancock should be a pleasant surprise for you in this year’s so-far unexceptional summer movie season.

Smith is John Hancock, a trailer-dwelling, nihilistic alcoholic. Really, there’s only one word to describe him. He’s an asshole. He passes out at bus stops, makes unwarranted sexual advances on women and attacks children. Oh, and he’s also an immortal and seemingly invincible “superhero,” who doesn’t know who he really is or where he came from.

All Hancock knows is 80 years earlier he woke up with amnesia in a hospital after getting knocked on the head. Is he an alien? A god? The result of a government experiment? Part of the joy of the film is that the explanation comes unexpectedly and the filmmakers don’t labor on it too much. The mythology of the film is short and sweet. Like other self-assured pieces of cinema, Hancock is not good because of what it says, but how it says it.

Hancock is a simple and at times sweet story told in the explosive shell of a mindless summer blockbuster. There are some first-rate action scenes for sure, but at the center, it is a story about a man coming to grips with who he is and who he is destined to be.

The story involves the efforts of a goodhearted public relations man named Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman, getting laughs from throwaway lines like nobody’s business) and his attempts to rebuild the tarnished public image of the disgruntled Hancock, who had previously, and sloppily, saved Ray’s life from a speeding train.

Hancock is pissed that nobody gives him credit for saving the lives of Los Angeleans day-in and day-out. Who cares if he ends up destroying $9 million in property trying to stop a car full of criminals, right? Well some, like Ray’s wife Mary (Charlize Theron, pairing up again with Bateman after her brief stint on Arrested Development. Mister F!), have had enough of Hancock’s drunkenly destructive crime fighting and want him out of town.

Bateman, Theron and the rest of the cast are all working at the top of their respective games, making the straightforward dialogue sound intriguing.

But this is the Will Smith show. Like Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love and Jim Carrey in The Truman Show, Hancock showcases a giant Hollywood star taking a risk and expanding his on-screen persona. Here, Smith tries something new and it pays off. He almost dares the audience not to like him for half the film. It’s a dangerous move, but it may just end up netting him loads of new fans that had previously dismissed him.

With all the praise being thrown at Smith and the unconventional story, it must be told that the movie still has its fair share of problems. The direction of Peter Berg (The Kingdom, Friday Night Lights) is often clumsy and his insistence on shooting parts of the film with a series of shaky-cam closeups serves no real purpose.

An inane subplot involving a criminal out to get Hancock is at its best inconsequential and at worst distracting. It’s understandable that most action movies need villains, but a movie like Hancock that dares to try new things should have a villain that is worthy of the story.

Hancock is a film that doesn’t take the easy way out. It’s rare that a major motion picture will just let its characters talk and interact for extended periods without fear that the audience will get bored, but, like Spider-Man 2, the non-action scenes in Hancock are just as exciting as the crashes and bangs.

If Hancock tanks, like some are predicting, expect another few years of increasingly boring superhero movies that refuse to try anything new and make hundreds of millions in the process. If Hollywood is going to take chances with its action movies in the future, it could be up to this drunk, degenerate, foul-mouthed superhero to save us.

Help us Hancock!

Opens tonight at various theaters