This may just be the movie that breaks Will Smith’s string at the Independence Day boxoffice—though heaven knows some of his previous entries have been stinkers but nonetheless racked up big receipts. Still, “Hancock” is a special case—a misfire of “Howard the Duck” proportions that fails miserably as a new spin on the oversaturated superhero genre. It’s different, all right—different but terrible.
Hancock, played by Smith, is a guy with super-powers but a drinking problem and a surly attitude, explained by the fact that he has a case of amnesia going back eighty years and, as the only person of his kind, suffers the pain of loneliness. A bedraggled bum on the streets of Los Angeles (though, as it turns out, he has a ramshackle trailer out in the desert), he insults everybody within earshot, and whenever he rouses himself to handle some crisis he does so with a cavalier disregard for the consequences, causing more damage than he prevents. The result is that the public has absolutely no love for him.
Enter Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), an idealistic PR guy (rather an implausible combination, but let that pass) whom he saves when the fellow’s stuck in his car on a railroad track as a train approaches—with the usual chaotic result. Ray makes it his task to change Hancock’s image and turn him into a real hero to the masses. The job includes convincing Hancock to pay his debt to society by turning himself in to do jail time, knock off the drinking, curb his temper and wear a black leather outfit (preferring it, presumably, to the more colorful costumes he dismisses with a crude gay jibe). Happily the fact that Ray’s little son Aaron (Jae Head) idolizes Hancock softens his heart and serves as an incentive, though his wife Mary (Charlize Theron) is suspiciously hostile to having the super-guy around at all. Ray’s project pays dividends when Hancock is sprung from the clink and garners accolades by foiling a bank robbery and saving a cop in the process (though it also earns him an enemy in the heist’s boss, whom he turns into a modern-day Captain Hook).
Up to this point one can sense the germ of a decent idea in the script, though the execution of it is pretty poor. Smith seems out of his element playing nasty, though he appears even more uncomfortable acting stalwart in his hero’s suit; Bateman comes off strained; and Theron is simply colorless. Even young Head seems a generic tyke. The screenplay relies entirely too much on offhanded crudity (some of the jail stuff is disgustingly vulgar, and the word “asshole,” a sort of comic motif, is tossed around carelessly, in several cases by kids as a lame joke), and the effects are frankly not so special. Worst of all, the movie just looks awful—poorly lit, showcasing the jittery hand-held camerawork that’s become director Peter Berg’s unfortunate trademark, and blighted by entirely too many ugly ultra-closeups.
Still, it might have remained semi-tolerable were it not for an abrupt narrative turn into “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” territory at the halfway point that’s not only totally dumb (being based on a coincidence so huge that even in this fantasy world it beggars credibility) but leads to so much blood and violence that the MPAA PG-13 rating becomes an utter joke. (It also sets the stage for an explanation of Hancock’s powers that necessitates a particularly unsatisfying ending.) And as to the big effects here, they’re about as impressive as the ones in the Salkinds’ “Supergirl” movie, which looked crummy a quarter-century ago. The jumpy cinematography by Tobias Schliessler continues, too, making it all the more irritating.
As if the visual assault weren’t bad enough, “Hancock” is afflicted with a dreadful score by John Powell that makes it almost as difficult to listen to as it is to watch.
All of which doesn’t necessarily mean that the picture will be Smith’s first big boxoffice flop. Dreadful summer blockbusters can still make a mint, as “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” proved only last year. But that was a sequel with a built-in fan base. Whether even Smith will be able to carry this misguided attempt to start up a new franchise is more doubtful. “Hancock” is a super-dud.