January 24, 2009
Since the publishing of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's influential comic book "Watchmen" in the decade of the 80s, the comic book won importance and recognition as an art form, and the figure of the superhero began to be seen as the complex character it really was. Almost since their conception in the pages of pulp magazines, superheroes have become integral part of modern pop culture on an almost universal level. What started as comic book characters that were basically the evolution of those pulp fiction heroes of late 1800s, has technically become a new mythology, with names such as Superman, Batman and Spider-Man taking the place of the ancient Norse adventurers, the classic Greek demigods and other legendary heroes as icons of the values and state of our culture. Their adventures are reflections of our world, with the ideals, fears and vices of our times being imprinted in their pages. Following Moore's dissection of the superhero, writer Vincent Ngo conceived the story of a superhero who has to face the consequences of his acts: John Hancock.
In "Hancock", Will Smith plays the title character, John Hancock, a drunkard vagabond who happens to have superhuman powers such as super-strength, invulnerability and the ability to fly. Living in Los Angeles, Hancock tries to use his powers to save people, but his irresponsible and careless activity often results in severe damages to the city, causing millions of dollars in property damage. Hancock's constant drunkenness, anger management problems and overall bad attitude doesn't help him with this, so he is more hated than appreciated by the people he saves. One day, public relations spokesperson Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) is going home after an unsuccessful meeting in an important corporation when his car becomes trapped on railroad tracks, leaving him facing the imminent collision with a train. Hancock appears and saves Ray, but at the cost of destroying the train and damaging other cars, including Ray's. However, Ray thanks Hancock for his deed, and offers him to improve his public image. This will mean a lot of changes and discoveries for John Hancock.
Written by Vincent Ngo and developed by Vince Gilligan, the screenplay is an interesting view on the question "what of superheroes were real?", focusing mainly on how would their actions affect everyday life. As written above, this view is nothing new in the world of comic books, but for superhero movies is quite original. Having Hancock as a grumpy, cynical and all around disgusting character (the whole opposite of Superman), Ngo also takes a time to wonder about the feelings a superhero would have living in a world where he is basically an outcast. Ngo's original script (titled "Tonight, He Comes") was darker and deeper, but Gilligan's worked comedy elements that toned down the darkness of the story, lightening up a bit. Fortunately (and contrary to what the trailer may indicate), this change of tone does not make the storyline another typical feel-good comedy or a parody of superhero films, but it's actually done with Ngo's idea in mind. The result is a cynic black comedy about superheroes that proves to be intelligent and the opposite of Craig Mazin's "Superhero Movie".
Director Peter Berg also keeps the tone set by the original screenplay, making "Hancock" more than a superhero action film, and instead focusing on the main characters reactions and emotions. While of course there are several action set pieces where Hancock showcases his superpowers and crime-fighting ability (or lack of it), the best scenes of the movie come in the examination Berg makes of the complicated relationship between pessimist cynic John Hancock and the optimistic idealism of Ray Embrey. Cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler makes a gritty portrayal of Los Angeles that fits well with Hancock's personality, although I must say that I was a bit disappointed by Berg's handling of visual effects. Basically a character study of the superhero archetype, Berg follows John Hancock through his disenchant with the world and subsequent rehabilitation, with Ray Embrey as guide about what the society would expect from a super-powered being. Berg's work with his cast is essential to this, and while tacky at times, it seems that he got it right for the most part.
The cast is very effective, making the film believable by playing the film straight and avoiding comic book characterizations. Unlike most of his previous work, this time Will Smith plays a character meant to be mean and disliked, and for the most part it's safe to say that he succeeds at it. It would had been easier to play Hancock as a charming modern version of the "noble savage", but Smith proves to be up to the challenge of playing against type. As Ray Embrey, Jason Bateman gives excellent support to Smith, delivering a great performance as the only man in Los Angeles who believes in Hancock. A scene stealer, Bateman shines every time he's on screen and often gets to overshadow his cast-mates. Charlize Theron plays his wife Mary, making a subtler yet interesting performance that in my opinion, gets hurt by a lack of development of her character. Still, Theron makes the most of what she has to work with and pulls off a nice performance as the supporting wife with more than one secret of her own. The rest of the cast is good, but nothing really amazing.
Overall, "Hancock" is a pretty good movie, specially since it tackles an idea rarely explored in films, that of superheroes as human beings. However, the film loses a lot of steam by its second half, as if the writers had lost their train of thought and had not known how to conclude it. Don't get me wrong, there are fine ideas in the final parts as well, but they lack the impact and consistency of the first segment. A bit more of care in the development of the screenplay would had resulted in a more complete conclusion, as the one the film has feels rushed when compared with the first two thirds of the movie. Also, as written above, I found that Berg had serious problems with the visual effects in the film, as personally, I think that, while they are impressive, they are in conflict with the tough, gritty style Berg employs for the rest of the film, as if the visual effects were too shiny, too bombastic for the style of Berg's character study. His directing of visual action scenes is also limited, and he seems to be more comfortable with the directing of his cast.
In the end, "Hancock" is a very good film, but also one that has a lot of missed opportunities. I guess that's the main complain I would have about it, that it has a lot potential that gets lost by a careless development of the screenplay. Or perhaps, given the long time the film was in development hurt the final conception of the whole thing. Whatever may be the case, the result is that "Hancock" offers something different in superhero movies, but also leaves the desire for a deeper, more complex take on the subject. But despite its problems, "Hancock" is a fine surprise, specially since its trailers and publicity made it look like a goofy comedy, when it's the exact opposite: a fine mix of action and black comedy that examines the human behind a superhuman.