Genre bending and plot surprises in Hancock

Will Smith plays anti-hero Hancock in director Peter Berg's against-the-grain superhero movie that features a tricky plot revelation to put a fresh spin on its storyline. Alcoholic lay-about Hancock doesn't remember much of his past as he goes about intervening in random crimes and accidents with a recklessness that has won him few supporters around Los Angeles. That is, until Hancock saves public relations exec Ray Embrey (well played by Jason Bateman) from a speeding train. Ray returns the favor by insisting that Hancock enter prison and go into a rehab program before returning to public life as a more responsible citizen and law enforcer. Hancock is a smart post-modern superhero movie with a civic-minded heart. Charlize Theron spices up the fun as Ray's doting wife Mary, who knows a bit more than her husband about what makes Hancock tick.

It takes a while, but its theme of responsible citizenship is unmistakable. Will Smith's Hancock is a gifted individual who takes his powers for granted because he's forgotten their source. Contrary to the superhero genre formula that front-loads the how and why of a character's abilities, Hancock dives into the deep end of what this contrary guy, who can stop a speeding locomotive with his body, is doing with his life. Sleeping on public benches with a hangover and cursing out young kids is not the way most of us want to see our heroes behave. Newcomer screenwriters Vy Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan (Home Fries) have fun refolding the superhero format to contain messages and ideas that raise as many questions as they address. Hancock is an action/adventure dramedy in which its characters connect with the audience in an understated way. There's an element of curiosity in its characters' emotional motivation that keeps the action engaging. When the rehabilitated and newly suited Hancock takes over for embattled police officers at a bank heist standoff with hostages, it's his intentionality as a concerned and accountable person that buoys the comic-laden set piece. In spite of its attention to grand spectacle, the movie doesn't demand the same kind of audience expectation that movies like Iron Man and The Hulk do. What it does accomplish on a gratifying level is promising less and delivering more. It's a rarely seen feat that crucially involves a commercial trailer that uniquely doesn't give away the whole plot as most trailers do. Still, its double-secret weapon is Jason Bateman as a liberal hammer attempting to inspire corporations to give away products free of charge to the people who need them most. In return, the company obtains the use of a cheesy heart-shaped logo alerting the public to that firm's commitment to helping humanity. Even here, though, the movie raises a subtle question about how far Ray's stroke of genius should go.

For a robust action story about three people from very different backgrounds attempting to make a positive influence on their world, Hancock is a step in the right direction. I don't think the filmmakers have reinvented a genre so much as they have introduced a new set of rules. Is Hancock better than The Hulk? You bet.

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