Bulletproof, superfast, and he can fly – do you know who it is yet? He has a penchant for anal-related threats and swears like a trooper. He likes meatballs, drinking himself into a stupor and his kryptonite is the word ‘arsehole’. Oh, and he probably fancies your wife. No, it isn’t Superman: The Later Years, it’s Hancock, a summer blockbuster that offers an alternative to your run-of-the-mill superhero. Or does it?
It’s as if the producers panicked half way through and came up with a twist so overblown that even the characters don’t know quite how to handle it.
Meet Will Smith as Hancock. He’s a super-charged alcoholic who is more likely to cause disaster than avert it. The public despise him, the cops want to arrest him and his people skills leave little to be desired. Then one day he saves the life of public relations humanitarian, Ray Embrey (played by Arrested Development’s Jason Bateman), who takes him under his wing in an effort to boost the misguided superhero’s public image. It’s not an easy task and the all-too innocent Embrey fails to notice the chemistry that ignites between his wife, Mary (Charlize Theron), and his new project. It soon becomes apparent that the word ‘arsehole’ isn’t Hancock’s only weakness.
The original script for Hancock lingered in Development Hell for 15 years before it was plucked out of the flames and rewritten by Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan and handed over to Very Bad Things director Peter Berg. It had its origins in the thriller genre as a stalker film, but few of those dark themes survived the rewrite. The superhero still drowns his demons with a bottle of whisky but you only have to look into his wounded eyes to know he’s redeemable.
After all, who would be convinced by Will Smith as a sexual predator with nihilistic tendencies? No, it’s much more acceptable that he swears at old people with comic effect and tosses whales into the air with reckless abandon. Even Hancock’s drinking is handled with kid-gloves and at no point do you really believe that he would rather be drunk than loved.
There is no comic book subsidiary to back up this superhero – he has to be established, believed in and adored in a 92 minute period. And for the first half of Hancock, the producers get it pretty much spot on. It isn’t overly sentimental where most films would have been and the hand-held camera humanises the superhuman with its intimate close-ups and gritty visuals. Will Smith’s portrayal of Hancock is full of angst and great comic timing, even during the darker moments. His tortured eyes say more about a hidden past than a hastily established back story ever could.
But then the film's second half muscles in and spoils this promising beginning by providing all the answers using the rest of the special effects budget and a rather skimpy outfit.
Charlize Theron barely gets the chance to stretch her acting muscles before she’s shoehorned into a plot device. It's as if the producers panicked half way through and came up with a twist so overblown that even the characters don’t know quite how to handle it. The balance in tone shifts and the jokes that once came thick and fast slow down to a trickle until you’re left with a humourless finale that’s at odds with the film’s opening.
Hancock's other big disadvantage is the lack of a good baddy. There are no arch nemeses, no super villains we love to hate. Instead there is Eddie Marsan, here playing Red: a bearded cherub with all the threat of a coat hook.
The film still has some saving graces. Among all the showiness of the second half there is Jason Bateman’s straight man, Ray, who manages to keep a grip on reality. It’s funny and entertaining and if it only had the guts to follow up its original first half with a believable and in-keeping finale, it could have been the start of one hell of a franchise. As it stands however, if Iron Man is the brains of the superhero world, Superman holds the morals and Hulk is the brawn, then Hancock is (whisper it) still the arsehole.