Ten minutes into Will Smith’s latest, Hancock, you can’t help but feel that you’re getting exactly what the latest trailer promised you. There’s a big car chase, there’s lots of gunfire, and in the midst of it is Will Smith as Hancock, lying on a park bench, nursing a bottle and a mighty-looking hangover. Thing is, Hancock has super powers, even if he’s reluctant to use them. So cue one superhero rescue sequence later, replete with $9m of damage done in the process, and the scene is set for the mix of comedy and action that you’re probably ready to sign up for.
Sadly though, it doesn’t seem to be what everyone else was there to make. For enter stage left comes Jason Bateman’s PR agent Ray, a down-to-earth man who – courtesy of a really impressive rescue scene – meets Hancock and decides, by way of appreciation, to tackle his image problem. For Hancock isn’t a liked superhero – courtesy of the trail of destruction he leaves in his wake – and it soon turns out that there’s a warrant for his arrest, in addition to passers-by hurling abuse in his direction.
But this is where the tone of the film changes, as it takes an unexpected and generally unsuccessful turn. For Ray – who lives with his wife Mary (Charlize Theron) and small son – is a man who wants to change the world but can’t (the irony being of course that Hancock can change the world, but frequently doesn’t). When he sees how the world takes to Hancock, he sees his chance to do some good, and persuades him to surrender himself to the authorities, curb his drinking, control his anger and do a little time.
This should have been, certainly in the hands of a gifted comedian such as Smith, the opportunity to flex some comedy muscles, and one or two moments do demonstrate what could have been here. After all, doesn’t this whole reluctant, sarcastic, one-liner spouting hero thing sound like something Will Smith could do in his sleep?
Yet the film, oddly, switches more towards melancholy drama than summer blockbuster, and it never really recovers as a result. As Hancock faces his issues, the tone suddenly seems to become more sombre than Smith’s last film, I Am Legend, and you’re never quite sure why.
And it leaves Hancock the film in a quandary, for in the aftermath of this it has an identity crisis it never really resolves. Considering its brief 92 minute running time, much of it is spent with the key characters sitting around and chatting, looking mournful and appearing to be anything-but the cast of a superhero movie. This, however, isn’t a choice that those behind the camera feel confident with, because every now and then they throw in an overt blockbuster moment. In fact, come the middle of the film is a quite terrific fight scene, swirling with great special effects and real big screen impact. Then, quick as a flash, it’s gone again, as everyone sits around to work out their problems and have another chat. It’s the same too for those few comedic moments: when they’re thrown in, they work quite well, but they simply feel like they were put there to sell the movie, rather than part of a coherent whole.
The frustration is that there’s a boldness in what Hancock is attempting to do. It bothers to throw in a couple of curveballs (whether you like them or not), and the underlying concept of a superhero movie where the central character struggles with his place in life – to the point of regularly hitting the bottle – is open to exploration. But there’s simply not the courage of Hancock’s convictions to do it. Considering it’d be a tough sell at the best of times to get away with all of this in a Will Smith 4th July movie, it’s perhaps the ultimate lack of belief in its own concept that hurts the film most.
There are other problems, too, that come as a by-product of Hancock’s choices. There’s no villain of note, no real peril to push against for instance. Plus, even when Hancock is locked up, you never get the feeling – save for the odd news report – that he’s needed on the outside. And by the time it’s all wrapped up with an ending that fails to satisfy or impress, you’re left wondering just what it was that they actually intended to make in the first place (although you’ll still be able to calculate how much you reckon YouTube contributed to the budget, in exchange for all the name checks it gets).
Yet in the midst of all of this, the ingredients are there. There’s some great effects work in places (and the occasional bit of, er, not-so-great effects work, especially the early flying sequence), Charlize Theron is on good form and there are sparks and splutters when Hancock occasionally threatens to burst into life. But Peter Berg’s final cut has the feel of a film that’s been chopped around a little too much (with reports of reshoots running quite close to the eventual release date), and to call it uneven would be, sad to say, rather generous. Berg, to his credit, composes some good sequences here, but it’s a long way from his outstanding Friday Night Lights.
Sadly, that muddled advertising campaign that’s been talked about elsewhere on the Internet has ultimately proven to be a fair reflection of the end product. Removed from a summer release slot, and with a bit less pressure to deliver a traditional Will Smith blockbuster, Hancock may have stood more a chance, and been able to follow through on its gamble. As it stands, it hedges too many bets, and is likely to neither satisfy those after a run-of-the-mill Will Smith action comedy, nor those in search of something a little deeper. A pity.