Monday, July 07, 2008

Hancock

Hancock is a surprising film. For one thing, I was surprised that Jason Bateman, usually a master of smarm and weaselly tics, was able to portray a kind-hearted, genuine good guy with such conviction. Here, he uses his formidable skill at comedic deadpan to deepen Ray, a sweet, gentle boy scout of a Public Relations man. The strength of the film’s action scenes was also quite disarming. Though director Peter Berg’s fidgety, shaky camera often confused the action or diluted the drama, the images in the film had a real weight to them, particularly when contrasted with the murky fuzz of other computer generated spectacles. During a pivotal bank robbery sequence, I felt like I was a child watching a Superman movie for the first time, such was the wonder and excitement wrought by the filmmaking. Mostly, though, I was surprised by the fact that, in a film like this, I actually found myself in uncharted territory. Something of a twist occurs late in the film, and I realized that I had no idea where the movie was headed. Because Hancock is so narrow in scope—it’s really a three-character drama masquerading as a superhero film—the consequences for this reveal felt important, meaningful. It’s quite a wondrous thing in this day and age of cookie-cutter fairy tales to feel a genuine sense of curiosity during a mainstream action vehicle. So, while it fizzles out quite a bit in its final sequences, Hancock is a taut, cheeky superhero film that manages to be both a solid comic book story and a funny lampoon on the whole genre.

The title character, a dissolute superman named John Hancock, belongs to a long line of insufferable, cranky, and lonely men in American movies. Usually, these men reform once they find the love of a good woman, like Bogart in The African Queen. Here, though, it’s Bateman as the na├»ve, optimistic Ray who provides the unconditional love and support for the aching, angry Hancock. Ray is impossibly sweet; his job involves asking corporations to give away life-saving drugs and food free of charge to those who need help. He’s laughed out of the boardrooms, but maintains his plucky spirit--you almost expect him to exclaim, "Gee Whiz!" at some point. One day, Hancock saves Ray from getting crushed by a train, but causes a massive derailment in the process. Angry onlookers, furious at the superman for destroying everything in his path, unleash a tirade of vitriol at the bumbling Hancock, but Ray, grateful and needing a ride, invites him to dinner. From there, the two develop a shaky relationship, as Ray, over the objections of his skeptical wife (Charlize Theron) begins using his PR skills to help Hancock become a proper superhero.

Along with Iron Man, this is the second movie of the year about a superheroic lout who eventually finds redemption, but Hancock’s approach to its character is much more satisfying. Will Smith’s John Hancock is an abusive, self-absorbed drunk of the highest order. He's indifferent to the suffering of mere mortals and fights crime, it would seem, out of a mixture of boredom and obligation more than concern for the public welfare. His disregard for the law, property values, or the safety of the general public as he swoops in to save the day is fun to watch, particularly in Smith’s able hands. Going all the way back to Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Smith has often played the part of a charismatic outsider, struggling to keep up with the arbitrary rules of a strange, foreign world, and the same is true in Hancock. When he’s coached by Ray to make a landing without destroying the city streets or to tell the police at a crime scene that they’re doing a good job, Smith’s confusion is funny and understandable. His powers render him immortal and above the rule of law, so why should he care?

Funny too is the way the film takes seriously the swath of destruction that follows superheroes. Usually it's a throwaway joke at best--an action scene concludes with a car's hubcaps falling off, for instance, or a family of four looking around at the remnants of their formally happy and intact home. In Hancock, the consequences of this destruction are the very point of the film, and have a bit of political bite to them, similar to something from Team America. The movie's character is a heroic power that's above the law, that stumbles into a situation trying to do good but makes a mess out of things, that arrogantly insists people love it despite this tendency. It should sound familiar. Oh, also, his symbol is an eagle. Got it now?

While Hancock is a smart, assured film, it's also a fidgety experience. The director, Peter Berg, also directed last year's The Kingdom, and this movie suffers greatly from some of the unearned sentiment that plagued that film. Berg's got a fine command of staging action scenes and gets great performances out of his actors, but, too often, he tries to orchestrate sympathy using overlong montages scored with mournful music. It's a cheap trick, but where one of these montages may have worked, there's a few in the film. They all begin to stack up and feel redundant. More problematic is the last act of the film. After the fun, nearly incomprehensible twist, Hancock is bogged down with too many explanations, too much dramatic stillness. The pace sputters to a halt as everyone--the audience and the characters onscreen--have to be told this or that or the other thing about things that happened long ago and far away. A key relationship between two characters is the basis for the entire climax of the film, but it isn't developed near enough to work, so the film (almost literally) limps to its conclusion.

Still. In a world choking with a glut of formulaic superhero films, Hancock is refreshing. It fizzles out after a 3rd act twist, but, for most of its running time, it’s a breeze of a film. It’s mercifully short at 90 minutes and manages to do much more with its running time than most movies of this sort do with almost twice as much. But, really, it's all about that bank robbery scene. When the reformed Hancock flies in to the rescue, it's a powerful moment that revitalizes the whole genre. He's not just saving the hostages in the bank, he's also saving himself from a lifetime of arrogance and unintended consequences. Speaking as an American myself, it's somewhat inspiring.

Would Make a Good Double Feature with: Mystery Men