Better with booze
Directed by Peter Berg
Cast: Will Smith, Charlize Theron, Jason Bateman
During its first half hour, Hancock blows away any other superhero movie in a boozy blast of fresh air. It’s better than Iron Man, better than Spider-Man or X-Men or The Incredible Hulk or Hellboy. (Not better than Batman Begins, but so few flicks are.)
Then, in one obvious, contrived, heartbreaking moment, a unique experience becomes a melodramatic drag. You’ll know it when it happens. There’s Will Smith, there’s Charlize Theron, there’s a sudden, horrible twist and the side of a house gets blown wide open. Cue an avalanche of ridiculous coincidences and long explanations of character origins. I’m still baffled. These people’s histories make no sense.
A whole lot of moviegoers won’t care what Will Smith does, so long as he’s carrying a big-budget summer actioner. The guy’s a guaranteed hit-maker, but for that wondrous opening act, Hancock is more than the typical Will-Smith’s-in-it-so-we-don’t-have-to-try-very-hard, corporate-driven instrument of mass appeal. (I, Robot, anyone?)
Our introduction to John Hancock has him passed out at a bus stop, snoring, as empty handles of liquor clink on the sidewalk beneath him. Gangsters are in a shoot-out with police on the freeway, and Hancock is roused by a child who wants him to go be heroic. Squinting through a vicious hangover, Hancock gets a shaky grip on his senses. He cracks his neck, rubs beet-red eyes, slides on his sunglasses. He stops at the store for fresh libations, then takes to the sky. Pounding back alcohol as he drunkenly wobbles among Los Angeles skyscrapers, Hancock halts the chaos only after causing $9 million in damage.
There would have been less destruction if the gangsters hadn’t called Hancock “asshole.” He hears this all the time, and hates it because it’s true—he is an asshole.
Hancock has Superman powers, minus the heat vision. He can fly, has super strength and speed, and is basically invulnerable. He’s also a raging alcoholic and self-loather. It’s a juicy role for Smith, who’s so charismatic he could probably run for president this year and come in second. The man clearly relishes this chance to send up his squeaky-clean, family-friendly image. When Hancock’s not drunk, he’s hungover, and the ingratitude of the humanoids around him (“Why didn’t you just fly the car straight up instead of throwing it?” “I can smell booze on your breath!”) turns him into a jerk. When a fat, middle-aged man tells him a driver he’s saved from certain death ought to sue him, Hancock tells the dude, “Well, you should sue McDonald’s ’cause they messed you all up.”
Surrounded after wrecking a train that would’ve killed a man, Hancock is serenaded by a chorus of angry chants. He puts up his hands and starts conducting the whining, which makes everyone angrier, until the man whose life he saved steps in. Jason Bateman, of “Arrested Development” (one of the funniest shows ever made), plays Ray Embrey, the grateful ad executive.
Hancock squints and grunts his way through an awkward spaghetti dinner with Ray, Ray’s wife, Mary (Theron), and their son and is about to fly away wasted when Ray makes a pitch: Everyone hates you, Hancock, because you’re an asshole. You should be beloved. Let me help you clean up your image.
Reluctantly, Hancock signs up. His first act of contrition is to turn himself into the police and go to prison (seems he’s ignored some 600 subpoenas for various offenses). The prison scenes are fantastic. In no other movie could one character ask another, without a glint of irony, “Did you shove a man’s head up another man’s ass?”
Our antihero reforms himself over the course of a montage into a full-blown good guy. This makes him so much less interesting. Hancock is released, stops a shootout at a bank, saves some hostages and is suddenly a citywide favorite. Then the whole adventure gets stupid.
Like Superman, Hancock’s got to be a hard hero to write for. Superman was so powerful they couldn’t create a decent adversary. In every movie he battles Lex Luthor, who’s always somehow gotten his hands on shards of kryptonite.
Once Hancock ditches the bottle, he’s completely in control of every situation. No bank robber can kill a hostage when Hancock’s fast enough to stop the bullet.
The movie’s way around this obstacle is to take a turn toward the ludicrous. Hancock does finally meet his match, but I won’t say how—not because I don’t want to ruin it, but because it makes no sense. Had this movie remained a story of an alcoholic with superpowers staving off his own demons, Hancock would’ve been the highlight of a summer packed with one formulaic comic book movie after another. Instead, it’s a disappointment.
No one in recovery should ever have to hear this, but he was more fun when he drank.