My trip to the multiplex continues with the new Will Smith film Hancock (and most likely with conclude with a trip to see The Dark Knight in a few weeks). In my post about The Happening the other day, I mentioned that I have a certain suspicion when films are reviewed extremely poorly (or indeed extremely well) that there’s quite a bit of overreaction at work. With The Happening, it turned out not to be the case, that film is an absolute war crime from start to finish. My experience with Hancock, however, was somewhat different.
As you probably know, Hancock is a picture in which Will Smith plays a drunk superhero. Of those two qualities, the most unbelievable is certainly that he’s a drunk. During his acts of super heroics such as catching a bunch of bad guys in a freeway chase, Hancock inevitably causes incredible levels of collateral damage to infrastructure. As such the people of Los Angeles seem to hate him, even though he’s saving their lives, on a daily basis. That is until Hancock rescues Ray, played by internet love affair Jason Bateman, a PR man / simpleton who wants to turn Hancock’s public image around.
So, in response to a number of savage reviews I read the previous week, I think it is actually possible to have a decent time with this film, but there are a great number of faults to get through first and you may have to leave before the end. The premise of a drunken unwelcome superhero teaming with a PR man could actually be funny, and it is in the moments they let this element play out. One of the few moments that deals with Ray’s attempts to clean up Hancock was one of my favourites in the film. After telling Hancock that he should say ‘Good job’ to encourage police officers, he walks around a crime scene insincerely repeating ‘good job’ to everyone he meets. The problem is that the film does not hold on to any one tone, never mind this one, for any length of time, and actually seems to want to fearfully do away with the central concept as quickly as possible.
The opening action sequence makes the film look unbearably broad and eye-rolling. Another review I read mentioned the use of a radio edited Ludacris song in the opening, something which seemed to herald the kind of embarrassingly squeaky clean version of the concept we were going to see and the out of date humour it was likely to contain. Luckily the film recovers for a while and spends forty minutes being intermittently broadly funny before plunging head first in a nonsensical, unnecessary, ugly car crash of a plot twist in the last half hour. For all three of you who wanted a bit of daft melodrama in your movie about Will Smith throwing cheeky kids into the stratosphere, congratulations.
This kind of film simply cannot stand up to a tone shift like that, and it sucks most of the casual entertainment out of a film that has already been mysteriously struggling to grind the laughs from an idea that seems like it would write itself. Don’t get me wrong, the film is still gently amusing though not hilarious for most of it’s running time, but the final misstep is fatal. Once you place a cooler eye on the world of the film, such as the filmmakers invite when they start to have characters crying, dying and discussing their histories, you can’t excuse to quite the same extent how little of this world makes any sense.
For instance, why do most kids hate Hancock? Surely they would love him, a real life superhero. What difference does it make to kids if he destroys a highway signpost? Why does this world have superhero comics with characters who are nothing like Hancock, if he has been the world’s only hero for 80 years? In the world of Watchmen, where heroes exist, children read comics about pirates instead. Half a thought has not even been given to ripping this off. How does Bateman not know how old Hancock is, has he only been active for the past few of his 80 years? How can you try to hide the fact you have superpowers by getting into a huge fight in the middle of L.A and hitting someone with a cement mixer?
Other possibly interesting character traits are not explored in favour of the terrible twist the film does take. If you really must move into slightly more serious territory, why not take a look at why Hancock does what he does? According to the film, his first appearance predates most comic book superheroes so he is not copying them. The movie is partly about how everyone hates him. So why does Hancock keep trying to save people, even though he’s not welcome, and even though he’s too drunk to do it properly? The film offers the briefest of hints in a throw away line toward the end, but it’s not really an explanation so much as a reiteration of what we’ve already seen.
Director Peter Berg has been getting quite a lot of benefit of the doubt over this film, suggesting that he might have shot something better, and this released version is the result of an unholy alliance between the studio and the MPAA to cut the movie to ribbons. Well, based on the released version of this film and his previous output, I don’t think I’m quite ready to put him alongside Orson Welles on the frustrated cinematic genius. Putting Hancock aside, he’s made Very Bad Things which I thought was rubbish, another movie where Stifler plays Shia LeBeouf from Crystal Skull, an American football movie that was safely average enough to be made into an American TV show, and finally The Kingdom, a Middle East detective film where nobody works anything out and don’t worry because of course they won’t kill Jason Bateman.
I’m very glad to keep reading in various articles that Berg is friends with Michael Mann, I wish I was myself, but I don’t see much in his work that inspires me with much confidence and Hancock does nothing to change that. Unless I hear that he was entirely ejected from the film and the last half hour was directed by someone else, I’ll have to say he did a rather bad job, and even giving him credit for the more amusing middle section, he ought to have known better than to have run with the rest of it as is. Apparently this script has been in development hell for 12 years now, moving from drama to comedy to whatever you might call it now, an amusing curiosity I suppose. It seems a shame that after all that time, and with the potential to be funny throughout if not classic, in the end it slumped over the finish line, sweating, shaking and trying to hold itself together, albeit to the tune of 100 million dollars.
*A small point, this film features one of those annoying sequences where radio call-ins are played over helicopter shots of a city. Not only is the dialogue always over-obvious in these sections in almost any picture, and never sounds like any comment you’ve ever heard an average person make on a radio show, but the actors they get to do them are usually horrible. I think it must be assistants and girlfriends getting in on the movie as a favour. Whatever it is, please stop it.