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Sony Pictures // Unrated // November 25, 2008
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Don Houston | posted November 16, 2008 | E-mail the Author
Background: Hollywood used to focus much of its collective attention making movies where it was always clear who the protagonist was, who the bad guy was, and what was expected of each. With societies growing awareness that life is never that cut and dry, the entertainment industry evolved to embrace the so-called "anti-hero" who was not the moral equivalent of a boy scout, often taking the concept of the morally ambiguous lead too far for my tastes but undoubtedly falling into a formulaic approach where the antagonist (the "villain") always got the best lines. Some of the best examples of this dynamic involve the super powered heroes like Batman, Spiderman, Superman, or other comic book characters most of us grew up with in one form or other, each motivated by a variation of the theme that "with great power comes great responsibility". Needless to say, as with the independent comic book boom of the 1980's that allowed publishers to break the proverbial mold, Hollywood has been trying to better explore the superhero genre, occasionally using comedy as the best way to come off less preachy. One of the sleeper hits of the year trying this was Hancock, my following review being for the upcoming Blu-ray release.

Movie: Hancock is the name of a super powered being in contemporary Southern California. His full name is actually John Hancock (Will Smith), taken when the amnesiac was asked to sign upon being released from a hospital back in the 1930's, his near fatal wounds mysteriously healed up but his memory leaving him wondering about the same questions many ask themselves on a metaphysical basis ("who am I, where did I come from, why am I here", etc). The movie shies away from giving too much background about the intervening years, leaving the viewer to wonder if Hancock was always a drunken bum with a short fuse (as he is repeatedly shown to be) or if he lost his moral compass sometime more recently, opening up a wealth of possibilities for sequels, sequels likely to use someone less expensive than Smith, in syndicated series or direct to DVD titles.

The movie begins showing Hancock sleeping off the copious quantities of booze he consumed the previous night on a city bench, a child waking him to help stop a group of felons chased by the police. Begrudgingly, Hancock goes to help out yet again, not wearing spandex with an emblem but his nasty clothes reeking of sweat and alcohol. Hancock's control of his abilities leaves something to be desired too, flying into overpass signs that wreck a bunch of the police cars involved in the chase, smashing buildings, and eventually scaring the populace as much as the felons who stupidly shoot at his invulnerable body, pissing him off as they wreck his sunglasses. His method of resolving the conflict shows a distinctive lack of concern for the public trust but proves effective nonetheless, the results causing an uproar as warrants are issued for his arrest and media pundits fuss at him to stir the masses against him even further.

Along the way, Hancock manages to save idealistic young advertising man Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) from a train, the resulting damage irritating the crowd of onlookers willing to Monday morning quarterback his methods but not dissuading Ray from inviting the man into his home. One thing leads to another as the pair befriend each other, Ray making it his goal to restore the image of his savior even if Hancock does not seem particularly interested. The movie plays this angle fairly well with Smith showing enough nonchalance to come across as a believable character, wanting his faith in humanity restored as much as their faith in him. Over a family dinner, Hancock manages to piss off Ray's wife Mary (Charlize Theron) while becoming the idol of their son Aaron (Jae Head) but some of Ray's speech sinks in, the one-man publicity campaign off to a rocky start as Hancock is soon convinced to turn himself in to authorities. The hilarious consequences of sending such a being into a correctional facility where many of the criminals were caught by him were partially explored too, the admittedly unrealistic manner in which they treat such a powerful guy fluffed off in favor of a cheap laugh or two but overall handled pretty well.

Not long afterwards, Ray's prediction that the citizens would be demanding Hancock's release to stop criminals is realized, a group of terroristic bank robbers thwarting the police to the point where the standoff threatens not only a downed female officer but a group of hostages that have had C-4 explosives strapped to their chests. Hancock saves the day with his new image, wearing the "gay" outfit that even he admits is too tight and landing very carefully (after all, the way a flying hero lands is "like your handshake to the public"), the criminal mastermind stupidly invoking the biggest red flag of all (calling Hancock "asshole" is tantamount to inviting disaster, the most overplayed gimmick of the movie in my estimation). The side plot of a forbidden romance leads to Hancock's origins being dragged out at a public dinner, Ray's mission nearly complete until things go astray as they are apt to do. I won't spoil the majority of the movie by disclosing the highly publicized ending or even the many cute tidbits that display the finer points of the characters such as obnoxious Michele (effeminate Daeg Faerch) getting his comeuppance or the extended version scene showing a slutty hero chaser (Hayley Marie Norman) engaging in a sexual tryst with unforeseen consequences but the movie worked for me because of such points rather than weakened by them.

The movie had plenty of plot holes and implausible moments but whatever imbalances the movie may have had, the playful sense of how it was all combined really helped make it stand out. I watched the flick in the theater several months back with a modest crowd (it had almost played out even in the second run theatre I saw it in) and people were laughing at the majority of jokes, even the inside jokes ("Call me crazy one more time...") so despite critical pans by the professionals, it was clear that people liked the movie, not just because the actors were so likable but because their personas put them in the moment. The story could have used a better villain at the end and more subtlety in the characterizations but I found it had some solid replay value so I rated it as Recommended. It might not be for everyone but fans of the superhero genre and action flicks will appreciate even the sometimes modest special effects (the super-powered fight scene was too short for example), the plot holes regarding Hancock's abilities (if the proximity matter was so important, how could he be hurt in the last third of the movie?), or the scale of the show itself. While maybe a guilty pleasure to most of us, it was a guilty pleasure well worth checking out so give it a look.

Picture: Hancock (Blu-ray) was presented in the same widescreen 2.40:1 ratio offering it was shot in by Peter Berg for this AVC encoded version using 1080p resolution. The video bitrate tended to stay in the 23.2 Mbps range but varied according to each scenes need, there being little correlation between the bitrate and picture quality overall. The theatre I watched this in originally seemed to present it too light, allowing the print to look kind of washed out but this version seemed to overcompensate on the dark side of things, especially in the hospital scene or epic street battle. I saw few compression artifacts or macroblocks but the clarity of some portions seemed to be pitted against the fairly frequent lapses, the hospital scene looking as if it were shot on another world (perhaps for artistic effect but jarring nonetheless). The amount of detail provided on the better scenes was really great though and while some of the CGI looked only modestly better than that you will find on far less ambitious movies (with corresponding budgets), it was a good looking release for the most part (hardly reference quality but enhancing the experience for me all the same).

Sound: The primary audio track was a 5.1 Dolby True HD with a French version dub, and lesser 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks in Spanish, Portuguese, and Thai (subtitles in English, Spanish, French, Korean, and Chinese). The usual 48 kHz sampling rate was employed and the audio bitrate varied as needed by the aural elements, typically hovering around the 1.7 Mbps area when I was spot checking it. There was a lot of separation here and the dynamic range was certainly better than average, some whispers so sharp that they provided an extra push just as the action sequences (the chase, the bank heist, the battle royal, and the hospital scene) were very loud but very tightly presented, the score working in conjunction with the special effects and vocals. It was not the best audio track I have heard in the high definition titles of the past year but an even better upgrade from the theatrical experience than the visuals (the opposite of what usually occurs).

Extras: Like so many discs these days, it began with the Blu-ray commercial hawking the format and additional trailers (House Bunny, Hitch, Men In Black, Lakeview Terrace, Nick & Nora, et al but using the MPEG-2 codec albeit at a very high bitrate) but the biggest extra for many of you will be the included Digital copy you can place on your computer, PSP, or other device. While I don't have an interest in such a feature, it is growing in popularity for others and was a nice touch. In terms of the usual features (all in high definition), there was a 12:51 minute Superhumans: The Making of Hancock that allowed the cast & creators contribute to an overview of the movie and how it was made. Then came a special effects special called Seeing the Future broken up into various clips (the longest being of Hancock fighting a powered pal but the running time clocking in at 15:11 minutes) that showed the cast commenting on various computer generated versions of the scenes that helped the cast understand what they were doing on the green screen stage. Then came an 8:15 minute Building A Better Hero which also seemed to spend most of the time on special effects but this time combining the finished versions as talked about by the crew more than the actors (though they were included too). Next was a 10:28 minute special called Bumps & Bruises where the stunt work was emphasized though within the context of the special effects too, followed by a 10:48 minute special called Home Life where the main sets were being built from the ground up, and a 8:22 minute long Suiting Up special on the evolution of Hancock's costume. Then an amusing 3:57 minute long look behind the scenes with the director called Mere Mortals: Behind the Scenes with "Dirty Pete" that showed how into the movie the director was. My favorite extra was a combination of the features where they were presented with additional material in a On-Set Video Diary in a small picture in picture bubble on the screen as the movie played. Lastly, there was a BD-Live feature but it was not activated when I reviewed the disc.

Final Thoughts: Hancock was a fun action flick capitalizing on the popularity and charm of Will Smith that his fans should really appreciate even more than the rest of the world. His portrayal of a man without a past possessing super abilities was a lot different from those most media concentrate on showing and the results were interesting to say the least. The additional scenes of the uncut version amounted to ten additional minutes with Hancock showing a determined cape-chaser and some minor footage of Charlize Theron but added something to the experience of watching the special effect laden movie, a movie that was not without flaws but certainly a delight to watch for those willing to ignore the usual holes in the plot, the reliance on Hancock's temper regarding his least favorite cuss word, and the sometimes jumpy manner in which director Berg moves about the material on hand. Give it a look though and ignore the critics that hated it since it will please most of you for how the story was presented.

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