Will Smith is Hancock, a homeless superhero who drinks too much, is rude to passersby, and destroys more than he helps whenever he does manage to rouse himself to fight.
If you had told me six months ago, when this basic premise was all we knew about Hancock, that I would walk out of the movie loving it, I would have asked you how much of Hancock's hooch you had to down before you came to that conclusion. I didn't even want to see this movie when the teasers started to appear. It wasn't until the newest trailer premiered before The Incredible Hulk, when more about the overall story of Hancock was finally revealed, that I started to change my mind. You have to admire a marketing plan that, in this age of the overstatement, teases us slowly with the reveals, and even when we think we know it all, manages to keep a few secrets in reserve.
As we all know from the trailer, Smith's down-and-out superhero is the menace of Los Angeles, causing billions of dollars in damages whenever he steps in to work for the public good. Lonely, drunk, and generally irascible, Hancock is more prone to receive heckles than hallelujahs. This schism catches the eye of Ray (Jason Bateman), a socially conscious public relations man whom Hancock saves from an oncoming train. Realizing that the super man's bad mood is the result of the isolation that comes with being separate from the rest of the human race and his feud with the public is one of perception, and against the better judgment of his wife (Charlize Theron), Ray gets Hancock to reluctantly agree to a p.r. clean-up, turning the zero into a hero.
That's about all the information the carefully edited trailer gives away, and that's all you're getting out of me, too. Half of the fun of watching Hancock is seeing what turn the story is going to take next. Director Peter Berg (The Rundown) and writers Vince Gilligan (a major X-Files scribe) and Vincent Ngo (the BMW "Hire" series) have concocted the rarest of feats: an original superhero movie. Free of the half-century mythology that forces adaptations of comic books to pander to the property's fanbase with inside jokes and unnecessarily complicated explanations, this from-scratch power trip has the room to roam wherever it wants to go. At turns funny, exciting, and poignant, Hancock has everything you should expect from a superhero movie. Almost all of it works, and when it does, it's because it's done smart. The massive destruction, the way Hancock wobbles when he flies, all the small details show that the filmmakers really thought about how super powers would work in the real world. It also has some of the best music cues I've heard in a long time. Ice-T? The Roots? The theme from "Sanford & Son?! The score by John Powell also hits the right heroic notes. It might get overly drippy in the emotional climax, but hey, perfection is rare.
And, really, I don't want to oversell it. Hancock isn't perfect. Peter Berg and director of photography Tobias A. Schliessler opt for a pseudo-documentary, Homicide: Life on the Streets visual style that often calls too much attention to itself and detracts from what's happening on screen. Also, that emotional climax isn't just overly drippy, it's way too drawn out. Even before that, the story lags a bit on its way into the third act, as well. Rather than spin out of control, though, the team finds its way back and delivers an unexpected climax that shows us an alternative to the more generic acts of heroism that usually close an action picture. In a rare Hollywood shocker, it's a finale that actually makes sense for the character, coming out of his internal conflict rather than being designed for the most explosive special effects or to pay off some cheap one-liner set up in the first act. When was the last time that happened?
As the title character, Smith is perfect. He begins as man folded in on himself, pinched and angry and no longer able to interact with the world around him. As the film progresses, he comes out of his shell, becomes more open, going from caustic insults to genuine heroic bravado. Charlize Theron is also quite strong as the woman who is keeping an eye out for her man. As the balance between the two, Jason Bateman continues a string of winning performances. One of our best comedic actors, he always elevates a movie, turning the simplest line into his own jokey poetry.
It's been a good summer for fun movies, and with Hancock, Will Smith proves he's still the king of July 4th. In an age of endless sequels where every movie is based on something else, I hope audiences will reward an excellent piece of entertainment pulled out of thin air. To everyone involved, I'd like to borrow a line from Hancock himself: Good job!