Well here's something you don't see every day: A big, flashy summertime "tentpole" movie that A) takes chances, B) bucks convention, and C) takes some real risks with its subject material. Obviously the safe approach is for Will Smith to do (yet another) easily-digestible (if somewhat mindless) blockbuster like I, Robot or I Am Legend or Independence Day -- but this time the endlessly profitable Will Smith is working with a rather distinctive director who refuses to cater to formula. That director would be Peter Berg, and this guy has yet to make a bad film.
Unfortunately the production history on Hancock is not a fantastic one. There was a revolving door of directors and script polishers before Columbia finally started production -- but there were still marketing issues, last-minute reshoots, and MPAA miseries to deal with. And yet, despite all that, Hancock arrives like a breath of weirdly fresh air for moviegoers who like a little heart and soul mixed in with their hyper-kinetic action mayhem. Toss some sharp wit and an impressive display of edge into the mix, and I think you may have one of my favorite movies of the summer. (Although one can plainly tell that there was some late cutting done to the flick, all in the name of the almighty PG-13 rating, of course.)
Here Smith plays a mysterious (and perpetually inebriated) superhero who, frankly, is kind of an asshole. Sure he'll get in the way of a few criminals, but overall Hancock is a selfish, arrogant, insensitive jerk of an immortal being. To call him a reluctant hero would be an understatement. But Hancock makes an unlikely friend in public relations expert Ray Embrey, a likable enough guy who seems to have the best intentions. So once we're introduced to Hancock's unpleasant ways, much of Hancock deals with the titular character as he tries to mend his ways, become a little bit nicer, and basically straighten up and (ahem) fly right. Hell, the invincible butt-kicker even agrees to go to jail, so you just know that -- despite his miserable exterior -- this indestructible misfit really does need a little bit of the human touch.
But when Hancock figures out the shocking truth about Ray's lovely wife (an excellent Charlize Theron), things go from clever and amusing to surprisingly touching. Sure, the third act "revelation" feels a bit jarring (again, it's a good movie that feels like it was edited in a hurry), but once the initial shock wears off and you figure out where Berg is taking us, Hancock manages to transcend simple escapism and becomes a flick about loneliness, friendship, and sacrifice. The flick covers a lot of ground, both character-wise and in relation to tone, but it all comes together in a finale that's quite unexpectedly powerful. (Those expecting a Spider-Man-ish display of high-end mayhem at the close may be a little disappointed, but I thought the ending was just perfect.) And while Hancock certainly doles out ample doses of action, one never gets the full impression that this is an "action movie." It's actually a very subversive character study that wears comedy and action like a layer of icing.
We all know that Will Smith is all but a guaranteed lock at the summertime box office (especially when early July rolls around), but it's good to note that he's not just matinee material: This guy is a really good actor. Watch Hancock carefully during his early (extra miserable) stages and you begin to build empathy just by watching the actor's body language. In the hands of a different leading man, the Hancock character might have had zero in the likability department, and that would be the flick's kiss of death, but Smith allows us to care just a little -- even though this hero really is an aggressively active jerk most of the time.
And hats off to Peter Berg for casting his pal Jason Bateman in a big-time role in a big-time summer movie. Although he seems destined to play mainly in failed television series, Bateman is an effortlessly smooth comedic actor, and he and Smith share some really excellent scenes together. (You want drop-dead(pan) funny? Watch Bateman in any random episode of Arrested Development. Like, today.) Other highlights include some very creative special effects (it's been ruined in the trailer by this point, but the bit where Hancock tosses a whale back in the ocean still makes me laugh), a snappy pace (barely 90 minutes!), and a rousing John Powell score that both pays homage to classic superhero scores and forges a little new territory of its own.
Best of all, this is a movie that attempts to tackle very human issues by way of a very superhuman character. The themes most prevalent in Hancock are loneliness, isolation, loyalty, and commitment -- but if you're paying close attention you'll catch some interesting ideas about racism, political correctness, and the importance of both morality and mortality. In some ways Hancock is a messy movie that goes in more directions then it manages to explore, but I'll take an overabundance of ideas over a lack any old day -- especially when we're dead smack in the middle of the summer movie season. It sure isn't flawless, but I think there's still something pretty special about Hancock.
Which means it'll probably be Smith's lowest-grossing movie in about ten years.