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The last thing America needed in the summer of '08 was yet another superhero movie. Previews made Hancock look like a comedy fashioned to let star Will Smith have fun with a super-guy character who burps, walks around drunk and causes more havoc than he prevents. The big surprise is that the July release is an unusual, and unsually satisfying, entertainment.
If Hancock has an edge over most of its competition, it's because it's a rarity among summer blockbusters -- a screen original. Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan's fanciful script plunks its superhero character into the real world and finds him no more capable of dealing with personal problems than anyone else would be. Apparently an amnesia victim, the flying, super-strong John Hancock (Will Smith) is lacking a backstory. He's apparently immortal, as he hasn't aged since his memory was wiped out in an episode of amnesia back in 1931. He lives in two trailers jammed together on a beach hilltop and spends his time as a sloppy drunk, hanging out in bars and sleeping on park benches. Hancock's personal symbol is an eagle, but if he ever had a noble reputation, it's long gone.
Responding to distress calls while inebriated, Hancock thwarts some robbers but causes millions in damage to roadways, police cars and buildings. In an early scene, he takes a hooker home to his shack (PG-13 or not, this isn't exactly a kid's film) and has to explain to her the dangers inherent in super lovemaking. The public hates Hancock. He ignores subpoenas and warrants for his arrest. It's all the fault of Hancock's own behavior, as shown by his snap reaction when an irate citizen points out that his breath reeks of alcohol: "That's because I've been drinkin', Bitch!"
Will Smith is one of the few stars today whose screen persona resembles old Hollywood models; he carries his integrity from role to role. We know that there's an heroic altruist inside the unkempt, profane super-slob, trying to get out. The answer to Hancock's problems is struggling public relations man Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), another idealist dreamer. Ray meets Hancock on the rebound from a hopeless pitch meeting trying to sell a big company on the idea of a placing the public welfare before profits. Ray is determined to coach Hancock into cleaning up his act: being polite, sobering up, respecting public property and working for the public good.
The only reason Hancock tags along is Ray's wife Mary (Charlize Theron), to whom he feels an immediate attraction. The optimistic Ray is overjoyed when Hancock responds to his image-improvement plan, not realizing that Hancock and Mary seem to be forming some kind of unspoken bond ...
Hancock is frequently hilarious, with interesting character interaction and a streak of intelligence behind its jokes. As it isn't a pre-fab comic book franchise we can't predict what will happen, and the surprises involve at least one plot switcheroo that transforms what the movie is all about. Hancock assumes that he must have been a terrible person before his bout with amnesia, because nobody ever came forward to claim him. That bitter fact forms the core of his alienation -- an attitude that vanishes when he meets Mary.
The comedy is in the details. Hancock zooms through the air like a drunken sailor, carrying a booze bottle in one hand. He's grossly rude to criminals and becomes downright dangerous when baited with the (endlessly repeated) put-down word "a**hole". The film's CGI effects are certainly good but the movie settles for comedy realism over spectacle. The appeal is in the characters.
I'll avoid a discussion of the entire second half on the movie so as not to spoil the film's big twist. Hancock undertakes a major tone shift at its conclusion, that some critics felt didn't work; this reviewer had no problem with it at all. The conflict in its central concept reminded me -- tangentially -- of another fantasy that made consistent use of fairy-tale logic, 1985's Ladyhawke with Rutger Hauer and Michelle Pfeiffer. In the Richard Donner film, a magic spell separates two lovers by preventing them from meeting in human form -- she's a hawk during the day and he's a wolf by night.
Director Peter Berg moved up from acting ten years ago with the precise but repellent Very Bad Things; this major hit has secured him the helm for yet another proposed remake of Dune. Acting is now a solid road to directing, and Berg is good with both his cast and the technical details. We only wish he'd not circle his actors as much with his camera, Vertigo- style. We want to see the performance, not scan it for 3D modeling.
Will Smith is his charming self, playing the gross 'n' grungy Hancock without actually becoming disgusting. Some will find one particular gag in the prison scene to be too much of a nasty thing, but one has to put it in perspective. Compared to the level of scum in the average new comedy, it's not that bad.
After this picture and Juno, Jason Bateman should be on the way to authentic stardom. His character reacts to trying circumstances with dignity and grace, and retains audience respect. As the rather glamorous stay-at-home Mom, Charlize Theron must play most of Mary's part with her eyes alone. The three performances mesh well in a show with a solid message: relationships need to be based on more than just our feelings and desires. We're at our best when we work with the deal we're dealt, even if the deal is a Curse from the Gods.
Sony's Blu-ray disc of Hancock is great HD encoding of the summer superhero comedy. The effects look fine at the higher resolution, and the highly directional audio adds its own dynamic dimension, especially during the big bank shoot-out.
The disc contains two entire encodings of the film, the Theatrical and Unrated versions, 92 & 102 min. respectively. I only viewed the longer unrated cut so cannot comment on what's been added, but the movie did not play long and I wouldn't want to see anything removed. A second DVD-Rom disc contains a digital copy of the Theatrical cut.
A picture-in-picture "Bonus View" track is included, along with a full battery of language tracks and subtitles. The making-of docu is broken into seven featurette chapters, with more detail than one might immediately need. It is interesting to see Will Smith personally flying in and out of many scenes on one of those computer-driven cable rigs used to fly cameras over sporting events ... they must have the bugs worked out of the system because they really fling him about. When Smith stumbles, slides and stutters to a stop on landings, it's all real except the damage to the asphalt! We also hear from the producers, among them Michael Mann. His involvement certainly makes sense, as the main bank robbery set piece has the same high-caliber feeling as the gritty urban shoot 'em ups in Mann's 1995 crime opus, Heat.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Hancock Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: Theatrical and Unrated versions, Digital Theatrical cut, 7 featurettes, Bonus View track.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 9, 2008
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