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Hancock (2008) Print E-mail
Wednesday, 02 July 2008
Hancock (Will Smith) is a superhero. He’s invulnerable, super-strong and can fly. He’s also something of a bum, given to sleeping on park benches; he stinks, and he drinks way too much. This much about “Hancock” you can tell from the trailers. What you can’t tell is that this movie is as much a drama as it is a comedy; though it’s amusing throughout (albeit intermittently), most of the funny stuff is dealt with early in the film.

The movie is somewhat difficult to describe, because about halfway through, there’s a major plot surprise—well, at least I didn’t see it coming—and this surprise is, annoyingly, one of the best and one of the worst things about “Hancock.” It’s an interesting surprise, no doubt about that, but it raises as many questions as it (eventually) answers, and some of those questions are particularly troublesome. But they cannot intelligently be dealt with because the surprise would have to be revealed. I don’t reveal surprises even in movies I don’t like, much less in films I largely liked, such as this one. It’s just not fair to anyone.

Hancock causes as many problems as he solves. He can fly, but he’s erratic about it, flailing around as he zooms past tall buildings. On landings and takeoffs, he’s likely to knock big chunks out of the pavement, and chastises at least one neighborhood bully in a way that’s decidedly not child-friendly. In a spectacular opening sequence of a shootout by fleeing felons on a freeway, Hancock does come to the rescue, but makes a hell of a mess doing so. He’s cranky, disinterested and reckless; he only barely gives a damn. He saves people’s lives, but doesn’t worry about collateral damage, and has lots of pending lawsuits directed at him. Even the unpleasant Nancy Grace chastises him from her CNN bully pulpit.

We also meet earnest, well-intentioned freelance PR man Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), whose suggestion to a potential pharmaceutical business client that they gain good will by giving away a new drug is hardly met with open arms. He’s distracted, and on the way home to his gorgeous wife Mary (Charlize Theron) and appealing son Aaron (Jae Head), he gets stalled on a railway. Hancock grumpily rescues him, but Ray notices that bystanders bitch at Hancock a lot—so he invites his rescuer to dinner at the attractive Embrey suburban home.

Aaron is enchanted to have the world-famous Hancock at the dinner table eating spaghetti and meatballs, but Mary isn’t so pleased; Hancock smells bad, he’s crude, uses vulgar language and disappears into the bathroom lugging a bottle of booze. Soon, Ray offers to try to improve Hancock’s image. Wear a super suit, he says, be polite (and flattering) to police, don’t get so pissed off when people call him “*sshole.” He correctly points out that, after all, Hancock IS an *sshole. Eavesdropping later, in a surprisingly touching scene, Hancock is surprised to learn he actually made a good impression on Ray and Aaron. So he decides to go along with Ray’s ideas.
This begins with turning himself over to authorities and getting jailed. And right here, the movie hits its first big snag: although the Embreys visit him in jail, the movie stalls out during Hancock’s incarceration. He does go through some changes, but not after a peculiarly unbelievable scene of him shoving (offscreen) one antagonistic prisoner’s head up another one’s ass. He slowly—too slowly—becomes a better person. He’s now clean-shaven and spruced up; he even dons a super-suit when Ray gets him sprung from prison to help out with a bank holdup involving hostages. Carefully thanking cops left and right, Hancock does foil Red (Eddie Marsan), the leader of the bank bandits. He ends up in prison next to those same two guys Hancock chastised, if that’s the right term, earlier….

“Hancock” was born out of a spec script, “Tonight He Comes,” written by Vy Vincent Ngo back in the mid-1990s. It was regarded as a very hot property and changed hands several times, finally ending up in Will Smith’s pocket. But Smith had other movies to get out of the way before tackling the special effects-intensive “Hancock.” The script was rewritten by “X Files”’s Vince Gilligan, and given to Peter Berg, an actor turned director (“The Kingdom”). Berg’s work here is satisfactory if uninspired; he seems to miss some potential opportunities for good character scenes. There’s too much arguing going on in the last third, as well as occasional puzzling inconsistencies. Again, it’s unfair to point these out, as they reveal too much.

It’s not revealing too much to say that Hancock’s origins are a mystery even to the man himself. He’s been just as he is, never aging, at least since 1932, when he awoke in a hospital in Florida with only two tickets to “Frankenstein” in his pocket. (Since this is said to have been 80 years ago, “Hancock” must be taking place in 2012, as the Karloff movie was released in 1932. Pedantry lives.) When a hospital worker told him to put “his John Hancock” on a form, he assumed that was his name, and it’s been his name ever since. One reason he drinks so much is because he’s so utterly alone; there’s no one else in the world like him, and nobody ever showed up at the hospital to identify him. “What kind of bastard must I have been for nobody to claim me,” he sighs bitterly. He’s just been moving around the country (apparently), reluctantly doing superhero stuff here and there. The only other thing we know about him—at first—is that he likes eagles.

Smith is ideally cast as “Hancock,” but then he’s pretty much been ideally cast all along. He’s warm, funny and tender; audiences love him, even when he’s being an *sshole, as here. The role of Hancock is more complex than it at first seems (and much more so than the misleading trailers suggest); Smith is up to the role all the way through. We can buy him as a drunk, as a superhero, and as a lonely man who has very little, including a real identity. There’s never anything waiflike about Hancock, but he does seem a lost soul, adrift in the world, with no one and nothing of his own. Except his prized dark glasses.

For the first two-thirds, the movie seems mostly sure-fire; it’s fast, entertaining and surprising. But that biggest surprise, as mentioned earlier, may fill in some details of Hancock’s past, but it does raise at least one nagging question that will trouble some people enough to pull them right out of the movie. There’s an attempt to deal with this issue in dialogue, but it’s inadequate. So is Eddie Marsan as villain Red. He’s not colorful, he’s not interesting, he’s pretty much nothing at all except mean. Surely a more vivid actor could have been found for this role.

Jason Bateman is charming in a role that’s written very blandly. Ray Embrey wants to do good—but why? Who IS he? Bateman does have a few scenes that suggest some depth to Ray, particularly regarding his wife and son, but the movie could have used more of this.

Charlize Theron does great work as Mary, but like Bateman, she’s somewhat reined in by the odd nature of her role. In most of her scenes, she’s either angry or frustrated, which gets a bit wearisome. She looks great, though, and her scenes with Smith have a certain pop and sizzle. I suspect some pathetic types out there are going to object to the black-and-white romance that’s suggested. You always hope we’ve gotten past that, but it just keeps coming up.

“Hancock” is lively and entertaining, with an appropriately engaging central performance by Will Smith, and pleasing ones by most of the rest of the cast. It’s a likeable movie, but it’s hobbled in peculiar ways; it’s fun but is unsatisfying and perplexing as well.

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