Will Smith is the epitome of eager-to-please mainstream accessibility, so when he delivers profane insults to ordinary citizens in Hancock, they’re devoid of any seriously nasty edge. Smith’s drunken hobo of a reluctant superhero John Hancock is angry, uncouth and unconcerned about public hatred toward him, but Smith’s inherent likeability—and his character’s predetermined narrative fate of being rehabilitated into a dependable do-gooder—means there’s no real threat of an ugly, off-putting performance from the megastar. This pretense of impudence also applies to the film itself, which poses as an unconventional summer movie saga in which atypical characters are given priority attention over CG spectacle. Subversive tendencies would certainly be welcome amid all the cookie-cutter product being funneled into cineplexes by play-it-safe studios, yet aside from the fact that its crime fighter initially comes off as a boozy jerk, director Peter Berg’s latest assumes a superficial deconstructionist attitude while strictly adhering to conventions—especially, and ineffectively, during its second half, when the story goes so far off the rails that its illogicality flirts with abstraction.
Introduced sleeping off a bender on a city bench, Hancock battles L.A. villains with no regard for his actions’ consequences, such that when he foils a trio of thieves attempting to escape police on the freeway, he causes the city $9 million in damages. The reasons for his cantankerous misery is the mystery lurking within Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan’s script, and for a time, it’s a suitably absorbing one, thanks mainly to Smith’s capacity for making invectives (directed at women and children) charming. Hancock’s life changes after saving down-on-his-luck public relations man Ray (Jason Bateman) from an oncoming train—a sly racial/gender reversal of a classic predicament—as the PR expert soon forces Hancock to follow his image-makeover advice. This involves serving time on an outstanding warrant, learning to say “Thank you” to local law enforcement comrades, not destroying asphalt streets on aerial take-offs and landings, and wearing a goofy leather costume. It’s not a very tough path to traverse, considering that it’s really just a transition from funny-mean Smith to funny-noble Smith, though despite its tastelessness, at least a prison-set scene involving Smith following through on a head-up-the-ass threat (bafflingly embellished with the Sanford and Son theme song) aptly pushes the boundary of PG-13 appropriateness.
Berg’s handheld camerawork similarly seeks to challenge what superhero films should look like, filtering the fantastic through grittily realistic cinematography and grainy YouTube videos. Yet this aesthetic doesn’t work visually—a shot of inebriated Hancock flying exhibits a blatant, embarrassing phoniness—and hardly reflects a serious interest in reimagining its given genre, as the action soon devolves into rather standard set pieces and perplexing revelations about its protagonist’s backstory. Hancock’s deep-seated loneliness and resentment are bound up with Ray’s wife Mary (Charlize Theron), who from her first appearance is obviously more than simply a happy homemaker. Telegraphing surprises, however, isn’t as disastrous as the surprises themselves, which are so nonsensical that they sabotage any potential inquiry into the burdensome responsibility of, and sacrifice required by, heroism. They also, more fundamentally, sap basic engagement with the story, which becomes absurd to the point that it begs only aggravated questions. Why do ordinary criminals think they can defeat Hancock in hand-to-hand combat? Why do immortal superheroes think they can hide their identities and have normal human relations? And why, in light of its July 4th tent-pole budget, is this initially intriguing film in such a ludicrous rush? Eager not to overstay its welcome, Hancock ultimately sheds essential exposition in a mad, foolish dash to the finish line.