Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 07/07/08 11:21:38

"Dark Knight via Fresh Prince."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

A thought hit while watching “Hancock,” Will Smith’s latest assault on the July 4th holiday: Why hasn’t Will Smith been in any superhero movies until now?

I ask this question not out of frustration, but out of regret. Watching Smith, who easily ranks among the most charismatic stars to ever grace the silver screen, breeze his way through “Hancock,” I realized just how perfect he is, not just for this role, but in any comic book role. What kind of screen magic have we missed by not casting him as, say, Superman? Fanboy purists be damned - Smith would make one hell of a Man of Steel.

Instead, we’ll have to make do with Smith as John Hancock, an original creation blessed with all of Superman’s top powers: flight, strength, invulnerability, etc. The film’s twist is that Hancock is something of a reluctant hero, perpetually drunk and generally pissed, a sort of Bad Santa-by-way-of-DC Comics. And for a while, we get plenty of hard-PG-13 raunch as Hancock foul-mouths his way from one botched rescue to another. The idea seems to spring from that old line of thought: when the heroes and the villains are done fighting, what’s the insurance bill look like? (Hancock isn’t a hero so much as a public burden, with news commentators calling him a nuisance and cops begging him to leave town.)

But then the movie quietly switches gears, slowly but surely leading us into a whole other kind of movie, one more sincere and thoughtful in tone, in which serious consideration is given to matters of destiny, responsibility, and the loneliness of the caped crusader. Such a mood swing has been the target of those who call the film disjointed and unfulfilling, but I wonder if those gripes are simply because the movie doesn’t end the way it begins. Considering how well the shift works, I’d say the structure of “Hancock” is a bold risk that supplies more storytelling ambition than your more typical summer popcorn blockbuster.

(There’s also been plenty of scuttlebutt concerning the film’s lengthy history; it began life as an R-rated spoof, only to be greatly altered once Smith came aboard. Such alterations have been blamed for the perceived third act faults, but reconsider: the events of the finale flow quite well with what comes before, so perhaps the PG-13-ification of the movie didn’t do a lick of damage.)

Granted, not everything in the film works. The main plot - in which Hancock undergoes a campaign to improve his public standing with the help of ambitious PR rep Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) - is too closely tied in with a wet noodle of a subplot regarding Ray’s attempts to kickstart a charitable foundation. It’s a thread that never quite goes anywhere and drags down the movie every time it pops up. But we get what the screenplay (by Vincent Ngo and former “X-Files” scribe Vince Gilligan) is attempting; by painting Ray in such a favorable light (he’s constantly trying to convince drug companies to donate their medicines to poor nations), we see how heroes don’t have to be supermen.

More successful is Hancock’s own transformation. When we first see him, he’s passed out on a bus stop bench, booze bottle in hand. Within the first minute, he’s called an “asshole” twice, once by a little kid. The word quickly becomes a running gag. Clearly, people do not like him. His early outings are fast and funny, thanks to Peter Berg’s brisk direction and Smith’s knack for line delivery - when he throws an insult, it sings.

As the movie progresses and Ray’s family (Charlize Theron plays Ray’s doubtful wife; Jae Head is the son who adores the superhero) works their way into Hancock’s life, Smith is allowed to take his character into darker, deeper territory. And while the comedy remains (most notable is a brilliantly crude scene involving an anatomical threat made real), the film sobers up right along with its title character. A unique, wholly unexpected mythology is brought into the mix around the halfway mark, and it’s that mythology that turns the final act into something plenty serious.

So sure, Berg and Smith and their writers could’ve kept everything on the level of one of those awful movie parodies that get shuffled out every six months, but the gamble they took by instead shifting gears for the better paid off quite handsomely. Now if only we can get Smith to try on these blue tights...

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