Peter Berg’s unique and oddly enjoyable superhero movie Hancock is one of the more idiosyncratic $150 million summer movies that has ever been released. It’s a film that completely divided critics, but one that audiences seemed to enjoy, as it grossed $650 million worldwide (its relatively small 47% decline in its second weekend is interesting to note, but the film was released essentially at the apex of star Will Smith’s box office popularity). This is a tough film to discuss without divulging any spoilers, and there is a “twist” that shouldn’t be revealed or even hinted at, even if the misleading trailers did their best to ruin it. And while the film is certainly flawed and not all that it might have been had certain things not changed from the original, genre-busting script, Hancock still scores big points in an overcrowded genre, and stands apart from all of the Marvel clones due to its scrappy attitude, edgy tone, and rambunctious visual personality. Vy Vincent Ngo’s original screenplay that served as the basis for Hancock was called Tonight, He Comes, and was at first a directing project for Tony Scott; i can still remember reading the script when I worked in his office and being thoroughly blown away. But because the project was so offbeat and massively original (a drunken superhero falls for a suburban housewife and ignores everyone’s cries for help), the film never got off the ground in its original form; directors like Michael Mann and Jonathan Mostow would also step up to the plate before moving on. But then Mann, who stayed on Hancock as a producer (and who also makes a sly cameo during the opening act), recruited Berg, who had taken over the directing reins on the action-thriller The Kingdom (another project nearly directed by Mann), and brought Breaking Bad writer/creator Vince Gilligan on for some rewrites. What ended up being released on screen was something that really hadn’t been attempted before, and it was because Berg and his creative team rooted the film in the real world, complete with jittery, hand-held cinematography (which proposed a challenge for the CGI artists) and satirical humor that Hancock feels unlike any other man-with-special-powers movie that’s been released.
The tech package to this film is really extraordinary, with Tobias Schliessler’s dynamic and gritty camerawork catching stuff on the fly, and while the film does suffer from swirling CGI-vortex in the sky syndrome, the effects work is generally witty and snazzy, with some cool flying effects, and nifty location shooting that was seamlessly blended with the mostly photo-real digital additions. And for once, the impact that a flying supherhero would make when they land on the ground is actually addressed(!) Smith brought the perfect sense of cocky-swagger to the role of Hancock, who happens to be a drunk, a womanizer, and a foul-mouth. He thinks it’s funny when he breaks things and doesn’t have much regard for personal property or the city he’s supposedly protecting. He behaves in the way that a superhero would probably behave if there really were such things as superheroes in real life. What Berg and his writers craftily did was set the film in the real world and treat the narrative almost like a dark comedy.
Not so much concerned in satisfying the more obvious conventions of the genre (again, at the risk of spoiling anything, I hesitate to reveal too much about the film’s plot), the filmmakers were more interested in the character of Hancock, and two people who cross his path: Ray, an idealistic PR executive (played with zeal by scene-stealer Jason Bateman) and his ultra-sexy wife, Mary, played by Charlize Theron. After saving Ray’s life, Hancock employs Ray to help him make over his image. The public is sick of Hancock destroying stuff, even though he is a good crime fighter. They’re sick of his boozy shenanigans, and Los Angeles, his home city, is tired of paying the clean-up bill after he does things like hang a couple of gangsters on the Capitol Records building by the front end of their SUV or smash traffic signs on the 405. Hancock goes to prison in an effort to show people that he knows he’s been bad, but once inside, he’s compelled to leave when the city needs his help yet again.
And while there is certainly a big twist that changes the film in a major way, it’s what Berg didn’t do with this film that excited me the most. After an amazing opening act, the middle section is a bit of a mixed-beast, but damn do I love act three, which apparently is the spot where people have problems. I admired the decision to down-play the typical superhero/super-villain climactic battle and make the film more about intimate character moments and emotional decisions rather than wanton destruction. That’s not to say that Hancock doesn’t deliver in the typical action-movie smash ’em-up fashion that you’ve come to expect from a Will Smith 4th of July blockbuster; lots of shit gets blown up and thrown around and all of it is done with polish and skill. It’s just that there is more going on in Hancock on a thematic level than you’d ever expect from a film like this.This is easily one of the more subversive and original blockbusters that’s been put together, and if it’s not all that it might have been, I’d rather see something like this than another vanilla-flavored rehash of the same-old same-old.