John Hancock (Will Smith) is not your typical superhero, and HANCOCK is not your typical superhero film. It is as daring and audacious as its eponymous hero, venturing into realms of mythos and sentiment with equal dexterity and erudition. It’s one of the funniest flicks out this summer. It’s one of the most romantic. It’s one of the most fun. It starts with a bang and ends with a sharp tug on the heartstrings while rarely missing a beat as it navigates that tricky transition.
They key is the emotional investment the script puts into Hancock the character. He’s a surly crime fighter with super powers, a bad attitude, and worse table manners. Not the most likely candidate for empathy when first we meet him sleeping off a bender at a bus stop, surrounding by empty liquor bottles, very big liquor bottles. Fortunately for the populace, or not depending on your point of view, he’s awakened by a little kid who directs his attention to a freeway shootout in progress. Taking just enough time to snarl at the kid and clear his sinuses, he’s airborne and just as quickly, talking trash with the shooters while maintaining an edge of genuine annoyance, not at the crime, but at having been wakened from the arms of Morpheus to deal with it.
Here we have the essence of Hancock. He’s evil tempered, but he’s also irresistibly drawn to fighting evil. In his wake, alas, he leaves the bad guys vanquished, not to mention cowed, but he also leaves decimated freeways, crumpled cars, and whales in a state that makes both the cetacean and Greenpeace howl. Innocent bystanders may escape serious injury, but the property damage that each feat of derring-do racks up is in the millions, leaving Hancock not with adulation, or even thanks. No, he’s got media pundits, politicians, and law enforcement types decrying him, and warrants and subpoenas sworn out against him, not that anyone can find him to serve him. When he’s not fighting crime, he’s under the radar. It takes someone special to see the hurt beneath. That would be Ray (Jason Bateman), a PR guy who would also like to save the world from evil, but he hasn’t got super powers and he’s up against not super villains, but corporate types for whom the bottom line is more important that, say, saving someone’s life with free medicine or food.
Fate intervenes when Ray is rescued by Hancock from on oncoming train. He also loses his car, and the train doesn’t fare much better, but in Hancock, Ray sees someone in need of his services and since his ability to continue breathing is due to Hancock, he offers his services and a home-cooked meal. Son Aaron (cute as a button Jae Head) is bowled over by having the super hero eating spaghetti with him, while his wife, Mary (Charlize Theron) frets over having someone with Hancock’s track-record influencing the kid. Or her husband for that matter. It doesn’t help when it becomes obvious that Hancock is a little bowled over himself by Mary.
Lesser lights would have made the entire film about smoothing Hancock’s rough edges, but writers Vince Gilligan and Vincent Ngo are going for more than a comedy/ cliché redemption story. They’re reaching for one of epic proportions and they go about it in a clever way that offers one terrific twist after another as Hancock’s public image is restored, but it’s healing his heart and his soul that is the real story. Again and again the writers take chances that in less sure hands would sink the film. The gradual change in tone from action comedy to action drama works because the characters remain consistent even if the idea of making such a switch is a bit jarring.
Smith is an actor that can carry an arc like this by homing in on Hancock’s essential loneliness as the key to his acting out. Yeah, he’s an asshole, the epithet preferred by everyone at the start of the film, but he’s an asshole putting the hurt on the bad guys, an element that is not inconsequential. It’s also the key to making his relationship with Ray work. Yeah, he’s skeptical, but there is something about a mere human putting himself out there for him that he can’t resist. Bateman, for his part, nails Ray’s decency, even in a profession not known for it and with his deadpan comic sensibility is the ideal foil for Smith, making them a formidable dynamic duo. The former slick, but never smarmy as he tries to coach Hancock through the fundamentals of successful interaction with the population he defends. In one exquisite scene, Ray tries to get Hancock to practice saying “Good job” in preparation for his next interaction with the police. Smith sits stone-faced as Bateman, patient, and barely undaunted, reduces the phrase to its phonemes in an attempt to get Hancock to verbalize any part of it.
The idea that a superhero would have a backstory that is, well, super is not a new concept Yet the twist on it here is that it’s not just big, but that it also smacks nicely of the stuff of epic Ur-legends. Writer Vince Gilligan, a veteran of “The X-Files” and it’s spin-off, “The Lone Gunman”, understands blending humor with fantasy. He also has a firm handle of creating stories that have depth. Director Peter Berg understands action and comedy. THE RUNDOWN is a testament to that, so is HANCOCK. But HANCOCK is a film with aspirations beyond it’s cracking good special effects and nifty one liners, it wants to be more than a popcorn flick, and it succeeds.