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Published: 7/1/2008

After a promising start, 'Hancock' chooses a standard path

BY NANCIANN CHERRY
BLADE PEACH SECTION EDITOR
Will Smith plays Hancock, a disgruntled, conflicted, sarcastic, and misunderstood superhero whose well-intentioned
heroics always seem to leave jaw-dropping damage in their wake. Will Smith plays Hancock, a disgruntled, conflicted, sarcastic, and misunderstood superhero whose well-intentioned heroics always seem to leave jaw-dropping damage in their wake.
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Hancock is not your conventional superhero.

Passed out on a bus-stop bench, he doesn't know that there's a crime in progress until a little boy wakes him up with, "Hancock? Bad guys?," ending his alert with a profanity when Hancock snarls at him.

But fighting crime is what Hancock does, so he gropes under the bench for a fresh gallon of bourbon, lurches to his feet, leaps straight into the sky like a human Harrier, and boozily flies to the freeway to see what needs to be done.

This isn't The Incredibles, folks.

This is Hancock, who apparently never read the superhero rule book. He dresses in rags, swills liquor, sleeps on the street, and probably smells as bad as he looks. When he does get around to fighting crime, he does it with complete indifference to the buildings, streets, traffic lights, and bridges that get in his way.

He would be almost completely unlikable but for one fact:

He's played by Will Smith.

Smith is one of the most bankable stars around: Who else could open a downer like I Am Legend at Christmas? And in Hancock he has a fascinating premise: Just who decided that superheroes had to follow Superman's creed of pursuing "the never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way"?

But the movie doesn't know what it wants to be. A satire on superhero movies? A story of family? An action film?

Director Peter Berg throws everything into the mix and comes up with something less than it could have been. There's plenty to enjoy, if you can tolerate pervasive profanity, but there's plenty of potential wasted.

It's probably not all his fault. The script has been kicking around for about 15 years since Vy Vincent Ngo wrote a story called Tonight, He Comes. Director Tony Scott (Crimson Tide, Man on Fire) took an interest in it, as did Michael Mann, who wrote Heat and wrote and directed The Last of the Mohicans. After several scripts rewrites, with Ngo and Vince Gilligan getting final credit, Berg (The Kingdom) came on board, and when Smith added his name, the movie got made.

Hancock starts out just fine. It's fun watching the cranky superhero treat his job as drudgery, with no regard for anyone around him. He destroys as many cop cars as he does getaway vehicles, and his sense of whimsy puts a strain on Los Angeles' coffers to the point where public officials wish he'd go "help" another city: New York, maybe.

One day, Hancock saves a guy whose car is stuck on the railroad tracks in a traffic jam. Of course, he destroys the train and not a few of the surrounding cars. Amid the chorus of hisses and boos that greet Hancock comes an unfamiliar sound: applause. The guy whose life he saved is immensely grateful, and he gives the surly onlookers a piece of his mind.

The guy is Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), who invites Hancock to a home-cooked meal with his wife, Mary (Charlize Theron), and son, Aaron (Jae Head). Mary is not as taken with Hancock as her husband and son, but Ray, an earnest public relations expert, ignores her protests and urges Hancock to work to remake his image.

Ray's ideas include thanking the police, having more regard for public property, and raising the bar on Hancock's sartorial standards.

Oh yeah, and then there's prison.

Ray persuades Hancock to do some hard time for the many outstanding warrants against him (collateral damage is apparently frowned upon in Los Angeles). Ray's idea is that as Hancock pays his debt to society, the crime rate in L.A. will go up, and the city will see how much it needs him.

OK, this is good stuff, especially the scenes where Hancock "learns" to get along with his fellow prisoners, most of whom he put in jail. There are gross but hilarious sight gags, and watching Hancock's awareness emerge is an acting treat. But as the character gets more civilized, the movie gets more touchy-feely and loses its edge.

The always-engaging Smith, however, keeps us watching, even when it becomes impossible to ignore the lack of logic. Whoever decided to cast Bateman opposite Smith should get a medal, because they play off each other nearly as well as Smith and Jeff Goldblum did in Independence Day, keeping much of the film viable long after it should have fizzled.

The Ngo-Gilligan plot does hold a few surprises, and if it had continued with the anti-superhero theme, Hancock would have been a real treat. But because it chose the path most often taken - superhero as nice guy - Hancock turns into something entertaining but forgettable.

Contact Nanciann Cherry at: ncherry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6130.



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