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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Hancock (review)

Hero Is as Hero Does

I thought: Brilliant! Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before? A reluctant superhero? Fantastic! Who asks for his superpowers, anyway? It would be a burden, wouldn’t it, about five minutes after the ability to fly wears out its welcome, which would be about ten minutes after you find you can fly in the first place? And by reluctant I don’t mean like those annoying Fantastic Four people, who appear to enjoy their powers but merely hate it when all the little people beg them to save the world when it interrupts their lunch. I mean: How come it took so long for someone to invent Hancock, who’s just a regular, ordinary guy who doesn’t want Society looking to him to round up all the bad guys and smile for the camera while doing it?
This is Hancock: He’s cranky. He drinks too much. He’s not particularly sensitive to the needs of anyone but himself. (This gal doesn’t approve of the celebration of such male stereotypes, of course, though she realizes they have some basis in reality.) He has no understanding of the concept of “public relations” or, in the vernacular, “being nice to people — or at least convincingly pretending to be nice to people — so they won’t hate you.” For which you can’t blame him: no one expects any random dude on the street to know how to talk to the media. And Hancock is just a Regular Guy — a role that, in the hands of Will Smith, has quite potent Regular Guy-ness indeed. Except Hancock just so happens to be able to fly and has superstrength to boot: he’s Superman without the square jaw and the apple-pie appeal, and he really would rather not be bothered with requests to stop bad guys in their tracks.

There are many joys to be found in Hancock, not the least of which is Smith’s (I Am Legend, The Pursuit of Happyness) effortless performance in the title role, which manages to be charming even though Hancock himself is really quite a bastard — you can’t hate him, even though you want to. And then there’s Jason Bateman (Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, Juno), as the freelance marketing guy who teams up with Hancock in order to improve his image in the public’s eye — there is some truly fine comic acting to be found here in the unlikely intersection of hard-edged Hancock and Bateman’s pleasant, kindhearted Ray Embrey. And there’s some funny stuff, too: like in Hancock’s irritated approach to anger-management treatment.

But by the second half of Hancock I was thinking: Huh? How did they lose the track? Because it turns out that this flick ain’t — as the trailer would have us believe — the flat-out comedy it looks like, and is far closer in tone to all the angst-ridden, hand-wringing, existential superhero tragedies most superhero movies these days have been. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, except that Hancock appears to defy its own setup, and especially since the movie was, at least in my mind, being promised to us as an antidote to the Very Serious superhero movies we’ve been bombarded with of late. I like the Very Serious superhero movies, but I’d been enjoying the respite from them that the very funny — though also sneakily poignant — first half of Hancock represented.

And I think director Peter Berg — who gave us the highly intriguing terrorism drama The Kingdom last year — and screenwriters Vincent Ngo and X-Files vet Vince Gilligan were enjoying the funny stuff more, too. Because Hancock feels a little undernourished once it turns serious, as if they, the gang behind the camera, couldn’t manage to be as enthusiastic about how their story was ending as they were about how it began. I will confess, too, that during that so-wonderful first half, I found myself wondering how the movie could possibly pay off on what it started off promising: the first half is so good that it’s actually difficult to see how its ending could live up to its beginning. Not that that’s a reason to excuse the filmmakers… except that having a great idea — and Hancock really and truly is a Great Idea — and not knowing quite what to do with it is not all that uncommon.

So here’s the thing: Can you tolerate a Great Idea that doesn’t entirely pull itself off in the execution? Can you forgive a movie for starting off awesome and ending not quite so awesomely? I’ve decided that I can.


MPAA: rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and language

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb
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  • seppo

    Yeah, I definitely can. I felt that way about Wall-E – not that the back half of the movie wasn’t excellent – but it wasn’t as mindbendingly extraordinary as the first half. How that translates to disappointment, I can’t say – but it definitely does.

    Strangely, I also felt that way about Bioshock, which climaxes a bit too early – 2/3rds of the way through the game comes one of the best executed plot twists in all of gaming, but the last third doesn’t deliver on the promises the first part made.

    Both extraordinary works of art, but both experiences I walked away from wishing for more.

  • JoshDM

    I just wish they hadn’t telegraphed the bad guy / nemesis so hard in the late-late trailer. That’s crap.

  • StruckingFuggle

    So, as newer trailers came out and started to show what I guess is the second half of the movie, it looks to me more and more like a move that earnestly affirms the status quo – it’s about cleaning him up and ‘turning him into a Traditional Hero, because people with powers should be Heroes’…

    How much of that was just my impression, and how much is it actually in the movie?

  • MaryAnn

    No, it’s not quite “people with powers should be heroes,” but the new trailers and ads definitely reflect the more serious tone of the second half of the movie, and they do reveal more than they should about other characters who appear in the film.

  • Maurice Webb

    Yea. I definitely see what you mean about not knowing exactly what to do with a great idea.

    Either way, I had fun. I watched it twice. haha

  • Newbia

    Thank goodness I just read this review before going to see the movie, and didn’t look at Rotten Tomatoes. It got a low grade, which just perplexes me. This movie was totally awesome. I just loved Hancock (the character)–he was such an asshole, but you couldn’t help but love him. Will Smith played him really well. There are also good action scenes. Even the ending was entertaining (though, I admit, a bit cheesy). Also, how great is it to have a superhero movie that’s NOT based on a comic book? An original idea in Hollywood is much rarer than a man who can fly and deflect bullets.

  • Ryan

    This movie had a good first 20 minutes, developing Will Smith as Hancock, and throwing him together with Bateman’s character. After that it died a slow and painful death, as Charlize Theron was forced to play quite literally the most contradictory character I have ever seen on screen…and given absolutely garbage dialogue, where she had to exposition out all the back-story in chunks.

    Said back-story then makes all of Hancock’s character development irrelevant, and I rue spending $6.

    I agree it was an excellent concept, but when I say it was well executed, I mean somebody took the concept and murdered it professionally.

  • **some Major spoilers here** So I have to agree with the flickchick’s comments about it being a great first half and poor second. I still liked the movie. It got stupid/silly when Charlize Theron’s character came in to play, but when it turned super-serious at the end, I still thought it had promise in that I was hoping one or both characters would die. “How ‘anime'”, I thought, and I started wondering if this movie came from an anime movie or Manga graphic novel. But then they opted for the feel-good summer movie ending instead. Oh well. Damn. Besides some ridiculous plot coincidences and conveniences (he just happens to rescue his “wife’s” husband, starting this whole thing, then the spot where in their super battle they happen to land right in hubby’s view, and the fact Theron was able to just casually stroll up on him in the hospital, and many more), it was a very good movie if they would have just left out the Damn Girl! Her character made no sense what-so-ever other than to explain where their powers come from – and a weak explanation at that. Jesus, you’d think she’d act a bit differently for someone who had 100’s of lifetimes of experience. And how does a guy (Bateman’s character) not know he’s banging a superwoman for years?? My wife’s thrown a plate or two at me before when she got mad during our 7 years together, wouldn’t Charlize have done so to Jason B. and killed him at some point? She never mentions that she won’t age, and he hasn’t noticed her non-aging in at least 10 years they were together? Why do will smith’s meteoric landings never damage his clothes or tear off his shoes?? Why isn’t the military on his ass every second seeing as how he’s the “only” known super-being on the planet, and doesn’t try and hide it??? Isn’t that what “The Hulk” is all about?? Why does every action/superhero movie have to be about a guy in love with some girl, and that’s the major plot driver?? Why God Why???

  • ac

    One more thing (another spoiler – so avert your eyes if you haven’t seen it!). What’s up with the moon thing!? They totally stole that from the Brilliant comic/animated show “The Tick”!

    And wouldn’t that,you know, piss off 80 percent of the population of the planet?? Not to mention astronomers and governments? and where’d he get about a continent’s worth of red paint or red dust? So he can fly at near-light speed, doesn’t need to breathe air, can control the weather (she could!) so he’s basically Godlike. and he decides to fight petty crime at the end. hmmmm. Still a great Idea, just gone wrong.

  • MaryAnn

    it was a very good movie if they would have just left out the Damn Girl!

    Hey, don’t blame the girl — blame the writers… who are, of course, male.

    Good writers can manage characters of both genders, and make them vital to the story as well as interesting and well-rounded characters in their own right. The fault is not that the writers included a female character but that they didn’t treat her with the same respect and dignity they gave the male characters.

    Which is par for the course for Hollywood, alas.

  • Ryan

    Yeah, I think anybody who has followed Charlize Theron’s career knows that she is a pretty good actress. That was just an impossible role to try and play. Not only was she the exposition machine, but also a really ridiculous Deus Ex Machina to boot.

  • Newbia

    I thought that the inclusion of “the girl” added a lot to Hancock’s characterization. It made me realize how lonely he must have been, all those years on Earth thinking that he was the only one of his kind.

  • PaulW

    My friends and I griped a bit about the contradictory explanations about the powers… how they came and went… how it seemed the storyline was slipshod, like they were bouncing between two different theories and no one made a judgment call on sticking to just one… and I recognize one of the writers from the X-Files series, Vince my boy, you usually did better than this. Only thing I could think of was that you had a film by committee (four different producers?).

    I concur the first 20 minutes rocked. The Great Idea of a Superhero-As-Indifferent-Ahole (sorta like a sports athlete… just watch the press conference and think “This was Michael Vick”) does give way to conventional storytelling and a too-pat conclusion. I’d have yellow-lit this.

  • Dan Duquette

    What’s with all of 2008’s movies starting so much better than they finish?!

    I’d say, if they took the first part of The Hulk, and the first part of this movie, put them on the same reel. (do they even use reels anymore?)It would be a film I would pay upwards of $10 to see. Or whatever ridiculous price it is for movie tickets in your area.

  • Capetonian

    Of the movie’s many inexplicable moments was the French bully kid. That scene seemed terribly forced. In a movie with only Americans, you have this out of nowhere and for no reason French kid with a really strong French accent so that you can’t mistake him as foreign, who happens to be a bad guy, who then gets taught a lesson by the big powerful American about whose really in charge here! Dubya would love that scene. Peter Berg makes a message movie.

  • MBI

    “Good writers can manage characters of both genders, and make them vital to the story as well as interesting and well-rounded characters in their own right. The fault is not that the writers included a female character but that they didn’t treat her with the same respect and dignity they gave the male characters.”

    I’m not sure I quite agree, as that entire last half of the movie was badly written, male characters included. That abrupt tonal shift derails the movie just as surely as Hancock derailed that speeding train, and I don’t think the problem is solely a badly written female character, although yes, she is very very badly written.

  • MaryAnn

    I don’t think the problem is solely a badly written female character,

    I didn’t say it was. I was pointing out the fact that one of the problems with the movie is NOT the inclusion of a female character but bad writing.

  • Chris

    Mary,

    I thought this movie was excellent until about the 1 hour mark. I can forgive a movie that isnt as strong in its second act as it was in the first (WALL-E and Superman Returns are perfect examples) but there is a big difference from being a good second act compared to a great first act and being a terrible second act compared to a great first act.

    The twist they come up with is so absurd and plain boring that I could have come up with it. It completly ignores what has happened the whole first part of the movie that included interaction between two certain charcters. It gives no real rules on how the twist works what it takes to trigger it. Add in to the fact that the whole memory situation wasnt really explained either, and this only gets worse.

    I’m not saying that this is a terrible movie, I would rather see this again than the Happening, but in a world where movies cost anywhere from $9-15 a viewing, I would tell people to either wait for DVD or even better HBO.

  • MaryAnn

    Mary,

    Who was it I was going to sic on people who call me “Mary”…?

    I appreciate your comments, Chris, but it’s MaryAnn, not Mary. It’s not that hard — the name is right there.

  • Chris

    MaryAnn,

    I apologize.

  • Eric

    “Can you forgive a movie for starting off awesome and ending not quite so awesomely?”

    I sat in the theatre thinking about this for awhile myself… and I went the other direction from you. The more I reflected on it the more I came to realize that it didn’t really start off awesome; I think it started out with a promise to be awesome. We went into it with what we thought the premise was to be, a reluctant superhero. Better still, we thought it was going to ba all about a reluctant superhero played by Will Smith! Awesome. Maybe some Greatest American Hero stuff about learning how to control his powers to be a better hero. And definitely the beginning of the movie held to this movie, so this had us sitting there still thinking “oh boy this is going to be great!” But I don’t think it ever really got there. It was heading there, but then came the dreadful twist. The derailment, as MBI so aptly put it.

    I would have ranked it a “rent it” at best.

  • Eric

    oops, I meant “held to this assumed premise”

  • WG

    Yeah, I’m gonna have to dissent and say a film that decrescendos in quality is not worth going to. I believe there was more mediocre material in this film than good stuff (although the beginning WAS good).

    People have already spoken about how the arbitrary origin story screwed up the successful tragicomic tone. It also promised too much story for what time and pacing allowed.

    “Hancock”‘s story progresses deliberately as an introspective character study. It’s punctuated by gags and explosions, but developments are well-rounded and spaced out. Until Charlize chucks him through her kitchen wall, you understand why people in the film do what they do.

    But when she suddenly reveals herself to be some sort of elemental Supergirl and dumps a multimillenial narrative on Hancock and Ray, she provides an epic setup for two blockbuster action-adventures (probably not ones I’d see). There is no way you can satisfactorally address that kind of backstory with 45 minutes of first-half “Hancock”‘s deliberateness, and hence the film descends into melodrama and Shyamalanian opacity. (How the hell does Hancock revive at the end?)

    We are left with a bunch of loose ends. OK, Hancock doesn’t know what he’s missing, but how can Theron ditch her Eternal Love, with whom she’s shared lifetimes, for Bateman (especially when she’s so sanguine about becoming mortal)? How can Bateman, at the end, just glibly deal with this new development (I assume)? Why does a super-dude who’s consciously 80 have the maturity and ignorance of a 16-year-old? Why is a superbabe with thousands of years of memories characterized as nothing more than a juiced-up soccer mom?

  • Eric

    It wasn’t the lame origin story that messed this movie up so much… what I think was missing was a villian. A super-hero is only as impressive as the villians he counters. I mean, that lame bank-robber guy was the best that they could come up with?

    If they had had a proper villian to counter, than I think the lame (and wildly implausible and incomprehensible) origin story would have been the background, as opposed to the focus.

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