Not since Titanic has a film so doomed in the public eye enjoyed such success at the box-office as Hancock. Reports of extensive re-shoots and additional footage only weeks before the July premiere were enough to convince the world’s press that Peter Berg’s $150M tale of a down-at-heel superhero was heading straight for Skid Row – Will Smith or no Will Smith. By the time the box-office returns began to come in, the funeral arrangements proved unnecessary; Hancock proved as unlikely a hit as a street-bum is unlikely a superhero.
With no comic-book pedigree to back it, the film is cut out of whole cloth from a reputedly much darker script which circled Hollywood for years. Here we’re introduced to the itinerant street-bum who snarls at kids, grabs the asses of passing women and is generally despised by the public for the millions of dollars he costs L.A. tax-payers each year in repairing the damage wreaked by his heavy-handed crime-fighting.
One day Hancock rescues the right man. Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) is the good-hearted freelance PR who’s trying to save the world and getting nowhere, but who sees the potential in the misanthropic demi-god, and sets about teaching him the basics of relating to people. All this is much against the advice of his wife Mary (Charlise Theron), who delightedly reports to the struggling Hancock that Los Angeles is determined to throw the full weight of the law onto him. At this point Ray has his brainwave – Hancock should surrender himself to the authorities and submit to his prison sentence; Embrey figures that crime will soar so rapidly in our hero’s absence that L.A. will want the clumsy superhero back on the streets pronto.
But can Hancock hold it together inside, and does he have enough belief left in anything to change his ways and win some love for himself?
The most frequent criticism of Berg’s opus is that it’s split into two halves, and there’s no denying this; the first sixty minutes of Hancock could probably have been extended to a really nice ninety-minute superhero movie, and all the second half’s delving into Hancock’s search for love and the roots of his origins would perhaps have made fine fare for Hancock 2.
My argument is that you get that film anyway – it’ s lean, funny as hell, endearing, moving, and to boot delightfully underplayed, particularly by a taciturn Will Smith, who seems to be hanging on to his reticence in I Am Legend. The special effects in the first part of the movie are superb, but are not allowed to drearily dominate the development of the characters. This is the first superhero movie in a very long time that actually put a lump in my throat.
The second half has far more special effects, and is much darker in tone, as the amnesiac Hancock begins to discover who he really is and that he’s not necessarily the only one of his kind, and here a villain defeated in part 1 returns for revenge. The action itself is no-holds barred, and Hancock, who has struggled to re-find his humanity, now threatens to be destroyed by it. If part 2 is a more predictable superhero movie in general, it must be said that it’s where some of the most engaging and shocking visual and narrative surprises are revealed.
So consider Hancock to be two contrasting instalments tacked together, if you like – it’s still a hell of a lot of fun and it’s still got a hell of a lot of heart; too much, in fact, to be ruined or obscured by the clear hand of excessive pre-screenings, focus groups, memos, re-shoots and re-editing, all of which bounce off the character-driven narrative like futile bullets.
An actor himself, Peter Berg has drawn out great humour and pathos from a bunch of characters who could easily have been templated instead, and Charlise Theron is a surprising and welcome addition to a first-rate cast. The PR has been Hollywood’s No.2 pariah after the lawyer, but Hancock shows you one that you’ll be rooting for, in addition to a street-bum that can fling cars into orbit.; hell, it even boasts a cute kid that you won’t want to feed into a meat-grinder, which alone is adequate testament to its magic.
Like its hero, Hancock is very flawed. Likewise, it’s also very good.
Extras There is a significantly extended ‘adult’-rated version of Hancock included with the discs, and nearly all of the material added to the core film feels cynically tacked-on to appeal to young-adults who want to rubberneck on the logistics of superhero sex. There are additional instances of swearing, some extended edits of more sensuous scenes, and – mystifyingly – some non-adult humorous segments that would have sat just fine in the theatrical release. Ultimately it’s only when watching this version of the film that a sense of genuine confusion is likely to set in, since it’s here that the disparity of the various segments abrade with each other; the pacing suffers too. Consider it a curiosity. The rights-managed digital copy bundled with the film is the theatrical version.
The second disc on any major Hollywood movie is nearly always going to consist of the kind of junket puffery that was shot specifically to sell the movie theatrically and as a DVD release. We can’t expect insight into the desperate back-dealings that preceded the month before Hancock‘s premiere, and indeed we don’t get it. Nonetheless we are presented with an enjoyable series of films about the movie’s conception, production and post-production, and the wealth of behind-the-scenes footage should make up for the very commercial ambit of the segments.
The documentaries add up to a respectable run-time, and this is as good as you can reasonably expect from a first commercial release. When the 10th-anniversary edition comes out, much of this material will no doubt be re-heated and inserted into a more illuminating documentary about what really happened during late post-production, but we’ll have to wait for that.
One fascinating insight into the superhero sequences reveals that far more of Hancock‘s derring-do was done with wires than most CGI-drenched viewers would imagine. It might actually enhance your appreciation of the movie to know just how much of it happened in ‘the real world’.
Hancock is out now.