Director: Peter Berg
In order to scare kids straight, there were a string of memorable television commercials which played in regular rotation during Saturday morning cartoons in my childhood that all ended with the tagline of “nobody ever said they wanted to be a junkie when they grow up.” Although that’s definitely true and one can add any addiction (including one to the bottle on that list), however in case of Will Smith’s latest movie character, the alcoholic John Hancock who probably hadn’t intended to fall for the drink, he never said he wanted to be a superhero when he grew up either.
While it’s always a fun game among friends and comic book enthusiasts to speculate about which super power it’d be most beneficial to have whether it’s x-ray vision, the ability to see into the future, immortality, or that always seductive ability to fly (especially now to avoid the price of gas), we seldom realize the downside of an extraordinary gift including the loneliness of being the only one of the kind. Not to mention the forced responsibility and guilt trip we’d face when—like Hancock—we’d prefer to just laze about rather than get up and fight (although he can typically be found passed out in a drunken stupor on a park bench or in his dilapidated camper) and the fact that in a world of law and order, breaking the rules even with the best of intentions is liable to earn you a ticket or two.
In the case of Hancock, he’s racked up over six hundred subpoenas and civil court cases in which he’s failed to make an appearance and as a frequent infamous star of countless embarrassing YouTube videos, his media dubbed “so-called heroics” have made the Los Angeles based superhero a man that citizens love to hate where even children curse at him. Yet all the same, when chaos ensues, he’s the first one they turn to in halting a speeding car full of gun crazed villains, managing to leave several millions of dollars of damage behind by flying into freeway signs, destroying skyscrapers, having close calls with airplanes and using cars or any other object within reach to hurl at another in order to stop whatever crime is being committed, seemingly oblivious that his antics have most likely wreaked more havoc than a typical perpetrator ever could.
Much like our current presidential nominees all turned to professionals to micromanage every aspect of their personality and spin everything related to their persona into the very best version of themselves to win over public opinion, Hancock needs a publicity makeover in the worst way and he fortunately saves just the right man shortly into the film when he pulls good-natured, overly friendly, humanitarian PR agent Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) from a car trapped on train tracks.
Predictably leaving a ridiculous amount of twisted metal and wrecked automobiles in his wake leading those stuck in the same traffic jam eager to launch into a riot, Ray steps in and reminds them of Hancock’s intentions and good deeds. After “hitching a ride” from the flying man in his battered automobile back to Ray’s middle class suburban home, he invites Hancock to share in the family’s traditional "Spaghetti Madness Thursday." Quickly his young bullied son Aaron (Jae Head) not only takes a liking to the unorthodox, scruffy drunk but eventually requests his help in handling those who target him, although despite her child’s intuition, Ray’s highly skeptical, loving wife Mary (Charlize Theron) seems to immediately sense something in their strange new acquaintance she doesn’t quite trust.
However, partly because he’s grown weary from becoming so ostracized in his community but even more so because he overhears the disfavor in Mary’s voice when she doesn’t know he’s listening, Hancock decides to put himself in Ray’s capable hands in molding his image and turning him into a more traditional version of a superhero that comic book mythology has fostered. To this end, Ray prompts him to make good on all of those warrants by surrendering to the authorities, joining the prison version of alcoholic and rage-aholic anonymous as an act of good faith with the correct impression that eventually the police will realize just how much they need him both back on the streets and back in the skies. And indeed, after the crime rate climbs a staggering thirty percent in just the five days that Hancock has been placed behind bars, the authorities release him to stop an increasingly violent standoff. Of course, this amusingly gives Hancock the perfect opportunity to try and put Ray’s training towards friendlier people skills and beneficial advice to good use in praising the cops, remembering his newfound manners, and above all, not condescending everyone with whom he comes into contact.
After a wildly entertaining, over-the-top, and hilariously offbeat introduction bolstered by the undeniable star quality of one our most likable leading men--Will Smith-- who by now seems synonymous with the 4th of July weekend, the ingenious premise changes along with its cinematic color scheme from light and bright to unexpectedly dark, with a genuinely surprising twist that throws audiences for a loop and completely switches the film’s tone. I hesitate to offer a greater explanation at the risk of giving away spoilers but needless to say, Hancock’s sudden gear switch from wildly fast to deeply heart-tugging jolts us unexpectedly and probably would’ve made a nicer transition had there been more subtle hints dropped into the first hour.
Yet, as I recently learned, following some questionable test screenings, director Peter Berg (The Kingdom) called back his cast for reshoots although it was possibly too late to change enough to give it the right balance it needed for a resounding success. Despite this, I applaud the courage to bring a greater romantic mythology to the piece which admittedly had been so surprisingly light on plot that I think it only occurred to most audiences after the fact, as we’d been otherwise dazzled by the effects to give that much thought to it while in the theatre. Thereby ultimately it makes us wish in retrospect that the creative love triangle set-up of the final act had been developed much earlier on, promoting that to the primary plot in lieu of one sitcom like “uh oh, there goes Hancock” gag after another.
Still, far better than the trailers would have you believe and infinitely better than I assumed it would be going in and in addition to Smith and of course, the always mesmerizing if under-used Theron, one of the brightest additions to the film is Arrested Development’s Jason Bateman who—like his previous work for director Berg in The Kingdom—gamely recognizes his role of selling terrific one-liners with just the right mix of sweetness and tongue-in-cheek humor, making him one of our most valuable supporting players as of late, coming off the heels of his memorable turn in last year’s Juno.