One of the revelations in Hancock is that the reluctant superhero doesn’t know who he is—a condition that not only haunts him but the film itself as it tries to stretch the very definition of the superhero movie. The problem? The movie experiments in two different directions: During the first half of the movie, we get Will Smith as a hard-drinking, bitter pain in the ass with superhuman strength, who can fly, stop bullets, cut glass with his bare hands and is pretty much invincible.
He also has a huge chip on his shoulder (for reasons that we don’t learn until way too late in the movie): People have to beg him to stop crime and when he does it, the property damage he causes outweighs his heroics—which make him hated throughout Los Angeles and leads police to put out an arrest warrant on him. We’re meant to laugh at Hancock’s angry antics, though the only laugh-worthy part is watching Will try to scowl and look hard—not the actor’s strong suit.
Hancock meets a PR man Ray (Jason Bateman) who offers to help him clean up his act: Ray advises Hancock to turn himself in and spend time in jail and work on his image while waiting for the police to miss his help enough to want him back. This is the turning point of the movie, when the laughs—such as they were—screech to a halt and a more serious, melancholy and romantic tone (via Charlize Theron as Ray’s wife, who may know more about Hancock than she’s letting on) take over. Add in a half-assed villain with a mechanical arm (seriously?) and a subplot centering on Ray’s attempts to get big companies to give away that goes nowhere, and you have a hot mess of a movie in which nothing really works except the special effects.
That’s not to say that superhero movies can’t blend action, romance and comedy (the trickiest part) successfully. It’s a high-wire act that Iron Man nailed earlier this year, but that movie had a few elements Hancock doesn’t: a fully-committed performance from the lead actor, a nuanced script and solid direction.
Hancock director Peter Berg (The Kingdom) lets his camera wanders all over the place, honing in and gliding over hands, eyes, etc. as it desperately tries to force an intimacy and emotion that it hasn’t quite earned. Buried somewhere in the baffling second half of the movie is a film that could have been interesting, but it would take a more interesting filmmaker to bring it out.