Hancock is a film full of surprises, many of them quite interesting and some of them a bit confused, and I’d hate to spoil any of them for you. But here is one revelation that shouldn’t take you by surprise. What begins as a sarcastic dark comedy shifts into adult drama and fierce conflicts with fatal consequences, which director Peter Berg delivers with an unnerving intensity. Even by the standards of a maturing superhero genre, this is not a film for kids.
Will Smith, so often the smooth, effortlessly charming everyman, plays Hancock as a disheveled souse of a damaged hero, an impetuous being of great power and little responsibility. Sending him to stop the bad guys is sort of like letting the Hulk loose in a hostage negotiation. Brute force gets the job done, but the impetuous solutions and petty vindictiveness leaves more unnecessary property damage than your average natural disaster.
The City of Los Angeles doesn’t much like him and the feeling is mutual. Then he saves the life of Ray (Jason Bateman), a publicist who genuinely wants to make the world a better place. Bateman plays the part with equal parts innocence and business savvy, a smart guy whose idealism is infectious, and he dedicates himself to rehabilitating Hancock’s reputation. It’s a publicity make-over, but it’s also a genuine effort to change his self-involved approach to his job, starting with his social skills and moving on to limiting his collateral damage.
Perhaps more importantly, Ray offers the isolated and lonely Hancock his friendship and his faith in his potential. Hancock doesn’t quite know how to respond to all this affection, but that confusion is the first suggestion that something has gotten through his indestructible hide and touched him. To borrow a phrase from another film about an entertaining misanthrope, it makes him want to be a better person. Or in this case, simply a person, and not an isolated, hated freak. Meanwhile, Hancock becomes transfixed by Ray’s beautiful wife Mary (Charlize Theron), who is immediately put on her guard, and not necessarily for the obvious reasons.
You may think you know where all this going, but the script takes some unexpected bends along the hero’s journey, not the least of which is voluntary incarceration (no prison would hold this sneering superman against his will) and anger management classes. It both humanizes Hancock’s self-loathing misery and shifts his conflicted identity into the realm of myth and archetype, and director Peter Berg (who likes to lace his films with a sarcastic streak) grounds the spectacle of epic disaster in both ends of the drama.
It’s not always a smooth mix and Hancock has its own identity issues. A subplot with a revenge-seeking criminal feels truncated, hinting at a mythical dimension to the battle that is never quite present. At times the spectacle seems distracting from the human story, at other times his determination to ground the action in human terms (with all the mortal dangers involved) becomes alarmingly intense, less a superhero action movie than a grim urban tragedy (Berg’s on-the-job directorial training on the medical drama Chicago Hope comes in handy here).
But where Berg makes it work is by refusing to sacrifice the integrity of his characters for an easy ending. The script doesn’t always find the most effective way to the heart of the conflicts and Berg struggles to balance the mix of tones and the mix of human drama and superhuman responsibility, but he finds a way to replay mythic conflicts in a human context and make the story of sacrifice and redemption work without losing itself in cliché or melodrama.
I review the film for the Seattle P-I here.