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...Anti-Story, and Antipathy Guide This Disappointing Super-Hero Flick

MR. FOURTH OF JULY WEEKEND: Will Smith Gives Jason Bateman a Lift

By Cole Haddon | Posted 7/2/2008

There can be only two reasons why Sony filled the trailers for Hancock with almost nothing but scenes from the first 40 minutes of this Will Smith movie: either these 40 minutes contain the best the movie has to offer or everything that follows is so dramatically different that none of it could be included. Both of these situations are problematic--and, for anybody looking forward to a non-traditional superhero movie, disappointingly true.

John Hancock (Smith) is literally a super-asshole. He's the only superhuman in the world, as far as he knows; he can fly, he's bulletproof, he can stop locomotives with a shoulder block, and, if that's not cool enough, he doesn't age. He's also a semi-homeless drunk with a penchant for recklessly destroying property in the course of his lifesaving duties. Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), on the other hand, is a benevolent PR specialist failing to save the world because he lacks Hancock's gifts to battle an indifferent corporate America. So when Hancock saves Ray's life, Ray offers to help the superman change his image in return; an offer Hancock, a loner with defensive antisocial tendencies, agrees to because deep down he knows he's supposed to be someone kids such as Ray's young son can look up to.

First step: Hancock has to go to prison to pay his dues for all the damage he's caused. Hancock is resistant, but Ray insists the public will come calling when the crime rate skyrockets during his absence--which it does. Hancock returns to service a changed, humbled man and dressed like an X-Men character. It's difficult to imagine why the filmmakers opted for such a familiar black-leather biker look, but Smith pays it as little attention as you do. Hancock is not about costumes. It's a deconstructive look at what it means to be super and how the superhero would mentally deal with his life in an increasingly lonely globalized world, where you can feel utterly isolated despite your celebrity.

Here is where Hancock takes a detour, making its second half another movie in just about every way. Sure, the characters remain the same, but their importance to the suddenly different--and inferior--storyline changes so much that some characters, such as Ray (the movie's heart and soul) and his son (a significant motivator for Hancock's personal change), are cast into the background while a previously enigmatic, seemingly unimportant character leaps to the forefront with the expectation that audiences are going to care.

It would be bad form to reveal the complete twist, but Hancock does discover that he is, in fact, not the only superhuman in the world. This revelation arrives, and you're expected to swallow it and all its muddled mythology. The emergence of this "villain"--if you can call the character that--is necessary because Hancock wouldn't have had anybody to beat up on otherwise. The ensuing battle royale is a blur of non-descript CGI figures. Director Peter Berg's frenetic direction--prone to extreme close ups and shaky camera work--only makes the events feel colder and less dramatic, not to mention uncomfortable on the eyes.

Berg, who also helmed The Kingdom and Friday Night Lights, makes Michael Bay look like a master of human storytelling by comparison. His faux-cinéma vérité has no place here, a bad habit he uses in every project. His real gift, however, is that he knows how to cast actors, such as Smith and Bateman or Charlize Theron (who plays Ray's wife), who all express greater depth of character and, more importantly, humanity with their eyes than the movie's sometimes shoddy dialogue ever does. It's the actors who make Hancock work when it does work. With a lesser cast, the movie would be the sort of train wreck this superhero causes while trying to do something good.

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