HANCOCK (2008) : P.Berg : 5/10

IN A NUTSHELL : Will Smith scowls his way through a leaden superhero spoof that only occasionally takes off.

Let us now praise Willard Christopher Smith, Jr. No, not because of his performance in Hancock – I don't think it's up to much at all. And the picture is, for me, the latest in quite a series of disappointing vehicles for the star's undoubted talents – following the so-so-I-suppose-so I, Robot, the utterly unspeakable Pursuit of Happyness and the thuddingly absurd I Am Legend.
   The public, it seems, begs firmly to disagree: a couple of months shy of his 40th birthday, the superhero spoof's success means Smith has now "officially replaced Tom Cruise as the world's biggest star" according to Variety magazine. Hancock looks sure to be Smith's seventh consecutive major hit – I haven't seen Men In Black 2, Bad Boys 2 or Hitch – by taking at least $250m in total revenues.
   The previous month, Variety identified Smith as sole current occupant of the 'Fluke Zone': "a place where a movie star can do no wrong. Audiences love you no matter what you do. Smith, borrowing a page from Cruise and Schwarzenegger, works long hours burnishing his press on global promo tours. All that elbow grease has paid off."
   The transfer of the crown/mantle has attracted surprisingly little ballyhoo, and even Variety tucked the pronouncement away on page 16 of their July 14th edition – in their report on international box-office figures. "Foreign [audiences] once again fell hard for Smith," they observed, "… Hancock easily raced to the top of the chart, grossing $78.6 million as it opened with 5,759 playdates in 59 markets… In the UK alone, Hancock took in a hearty $18.9 million from 450 screens… [confirming] Smith's massive popularity with Brits, who ignored poor reviews and flocked to the multiplexes"
   How to explain the disparity between the public's embrace of Hancock and the critics' sniffiness? Well, it's possibly due to inflated expectations among the latter, who may have known about this particular project, in its various guises, for quite some time: Hancock has been knocking around for over a decade. Vincent Ngo's original screenplay, entitled Tonight, He Comes – examining the relationship between an injured, down-on-his-luck superhero and three members of an ordinary, suburban New York family – was completed in 1996, and quickly became quite a hot Hollywood property.
   Jonathan Mostow, Tony Scott, Gabriele Muccino and (tantalisingly) Michael Mann have all come and gone as directing candidates, promped Cinematical's Erik Davis to ask in October 2006, "If this is supposedly one of the 'best unproduced scripts in town,' how come no one wants to direct it? Inquiring minds definitely want to know."
   The version of Hancock released in cinemas is clearly recognisable as Ngo's story – he now shares screenwriting credit with X-Files' Vince Gilligan. The project's evolution (regression?) – was charted in a fine article by Tambay Obenson: "it went through several rewrites by different writers – which, history I think will show, is often to the script's detriment. This case does nothing to end that trend."
   The action is transplated to Los Angeles, and whereas the original family's main breadwinner was a shopping-mall security-guard, he's now an ambitious PR-consultant: Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman). Married to Mary (Charlize Theron) and dad to young Aaron (Jae Head), Ray is nearly killed when his car gets stranded on a level crossing – and it's only the train-derailing intervention of drunken, unkempt, gravity-defying, super-strong Hancock (Smith) that disaster is averted. Hancock isn't the kind of respectable, public-beloved Superman type: he's prefers lounging on park-benches glugging bourbon to crime-fighting, and when he is roused to action his exploits invariably incur such collateral damage that he's viewed as more menace than benefit. Ray, however, reckons that all Hancock needs is better public relations…
   What ensues is quite a witty, silly, funky spoof on PR culture, interspersed with some nifty CGI special-effects. Whereas Tonight, He Comes reportedly focussed on the interactions between the Hancock-equivalent and the Aaron-equivalent, the movie is more of a knockabout-farcical mickey-take of the superhero genre. Until, that is, around halfway, when it suddenly veers off (rather like Hancock during one of his airborne benders) in directions that bear little relation to Ngo's original conception.
   These constitute a major narrative twist and so won't be revealed in detail here. Suffice to say that, while intermittently diverting (thanks to the full-blooded performance by a key supporting player), they sit rather awkwardly with what's gone before. There's the distinct sense that the "mythology" underpinning (amnesiac) Hancock's special abilities is being made up pretty much ad hoc, and proceedings are wrapped up with such confusing haste that the picture clocks in at a brisk 92 minutes, including lengthy closing credits.
   Director Peter Berg never really seems to get much of a handle on the tonally wayward material, concentrating on getting us as quickly as possible to the next loud, pyrotechnic sequence of destructive special effects. It's a disappointing blip in what's been a promising career from actor-turned-director Berg, whose last two pictures exceeded expectations: Friday Night Lights (2004); The Kingdom (2007). Both The Kingdom and Hancock credit Mann among their producers – he also makes a belated acting debut in a cameo role here, and even "loans" his current editor of choice, Paul Rubell (The Insider, Collateral, Miami Vice, the upcoming Public Enemies.) Miami Vice's Eddie Marsan, meanwhile, pops up in a somewhat underwritten part that's the closest thing Hancock has to a main villain – the lack of a satisfactory antagonist is a deficiency that will presumably be addressed in any sequel.
   And of course there's Smith himself, who obtained his first Oscar-nomination for Mann's Ali back in 2001. Hancock represents, needless to say, less of a test for Smith's thespian skills than Cassius Clay. But that's no reason for the actor to adopt a puckered kind of snarly grimace for much of the running-time. It's an expression which seems intended to persuade us that Mr Hancock is some kind of bad-attitude bad-ass – but makes him look as though he's continually sniffing a particularly rancid kipper.

Neil Young
19.July.08

MORE FROM SUMMER '08

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USA
92m (BBFC timing)

director : Peter Berg (The Kingdom, Friday Night Lights, The Rundown [aka Welcome to the Jungle], etc)
editors : 
   Colby Parker Jr (The Kingdom, The Reaping, Friday Night Lights.)
   Paul Rubell (Transformers, Miami Vice, The Island, etc*)

seen 14.July.08 Sunderland (Empire cinema :  £5.80)



*
1983 The Final Terror
1984 The Stone Boy
1993 Ruby Cairo
1996 The Island of Dr Moreau
1997 David
1998 Blade
1999 The Insider
2000 The Cell
2002 xXx
         S1m0ne
2003 The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
         Peter Pan
2004 Collateral
2005 The Island
2006 Miami Vice
2007 Transformers
2008 Hancock