Since leaving his Fresh Prince persona behind for global movie stardom, Will Smith has established two distinct screen identities. On the one hand, there's Big Willie: The Most Bankable Actor in the WorldTM, who keeps moviegoers laughing and cheering in blockbusters like Independence Day, Men in Black and Hitch. Between those crowd-pleasers, though, we're treated to Mr. William Smith, a hard-working dramatic actor who throws himself into challenging roles like a legendary boxer or a homeless single father and reaps acclaim and awards for his efforts. Recently, the soon-to-be-40-year-old has worked hard to fuse these personas into the same movie. Last winter's I Am Legend, for example, gave us all of the explosions and one-liners we've come to expect from Big Willie, but also left plenty of room for Mr. Smith to emote his heart out. And now here comes Hancock, a big, FX-heavy superhero movie that at heart really wants to be—cover your ears, fanboys!—a tragic love story.
If you've seen Hancock's ubiquitous trailers, you already know that Smith plays the titular hero, an L.A.-based man of steel with a bad attitude, a bad fashion sense and a perpetually bad hangover. Still, he hasn't completely given up on protecting his city from crime—although he causes so much destruction in the process that most Angelenos would rather he just stay home and sleep off the booze. Hancock may be a laughingstock, but there's one naïve soul out there who still believes in him, a virtuous public-relations man named Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), who takes on the Herculean task of reforming the ultimate bad boy.
Ray's plan begins with introducing Hancock to his picture-perfect family, which includes his knockout wife Mary (Charlize Theron) and cute kid Aaron (Jae Head), in the hopes that being around ordinary folks will remind him who he's supposed to be fighting for. After that, he convinces his client to turn himself over to the authorities to serve jail time for a laundry list of crimes and misdemeanors he's committed while in action. Ray's theory, which turns out to be correct, is that the longer he's in lock-up, the more the public will miss him, particularly as crime statistics continue to climb. Eventually Hancock truly is needed and on that day he emerges from prison ready to step up and become something he's never been before: a hero.
What the trailers don't tell you—and what this review won't reveal either—is where the plot goes from here. Suffice it to say, the film's carefully guarded twist opens up an unexpectedly rich mythology for a character that's primarily being sold as a bizarro spoof of Superman. Of course, your average comic-book fan won't be as impressed by Hancock's second-act detour, as screenwriters Vy Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan are essentially mining territory that's already been explored in much greater depth in comics like Alan Moore's Miracleman and Brian Michael Bendis' Powers. But we haven't seen a comic-book movie attempt this kind of story before and the filmmakers deserve credit for challenging the conventional wisdom of what a superhero picture can and should be.
This carries over to the film's visual style as well, which follows the same kind of gritty verité aesthetic that Berg first employed in 2004's Friday Night Lights and refined in last September's Middle Eastern action flick, The Kingdom. At first, the shaky camerawork and loose framing are jarring to watch, particularly in the action sequences, which are noticeably sloppier than the carefully composed mayhem seen in The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man. At the same time, though, it's important to realize that Berg is trying to show us the world through Hancock's jittery, alcohol-soaked vision; in fact, if you watch closely, you'll notice that by the end of the movie, the images have stabilized along with the character's psyche.
While Hancock certainly isn't lacking in ambition, unfortunately it does lack coherence. Clocking in at a swift 92 minutes—making it 30 minutes shorter than Iron Man and a full hour shy of The Dark Knight—this is one of the few summer blockbusters that can be criticized for being too short and not in a "It leaves you wanting more" kind of way. The movie really is too short to tell the kind of story that Berg & Co. are aiming for. At times, it feels like huge chunks of narrative are lying in the editor's Avid trash bin, awaiting restoration in the inevitable "director's cut" DVD release. The absence of key scenes is mostly keenly felt in the film's second half, where crucial information is either delivered in a barely intelligible rush or ignored outright. Clearly a decision was made in the editing room to keep the movie as lean as possible, but this ends up doing a disservice to the film's cast and crew, as well as to us in the audience.
Even Hancock's Teflon leading man is hurt by the choppy storytelling; the role requires Smith to be both comic and tragic, but he's rarely given the time to adjust the tone of his performance accordingly. The result is an unusually unfocused star turn from an actor famous for his discipline and confidence. The sad fact is that if this movie were released in comic-book stores as the first installment in an ongoing Hancock series, readers probably wouldn't come back to check out Issue #2.