There's something genuinely redundant about casting Will Smith as a superhero in a release on the Fourth of July. Much has been made about his supreme box-office domination of America's summer holiday, which when viewed without hyperbolic bias seems slightly overblown.
Considering that he is three-for-four with Independence Day and the two Men in Black movies kayoing the Wild Wild West fiasco, you would think that he's had a string of Titanic-sized blockbusters in his run for all the awe and reverence he receives from media and fans alike.
But I can understand it on a more basic level because Smith has exhibited the remarkable ability of making the transition from Hip Hop to television to feature films, and he has done so in a slightly unorthodox manner (that statement is a sign of how I've even starting gulping down the Kool-Aid because his rise isn't exactly unusual, he was simply the first rapper to chart this particular course). He neutralized suburban fears with his comic persona (both in his music videos and in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air) and quickly flashed his dramatic edge in Six Degrees of Separation before unleashing his undeniable charm in quick succession.
Truth be told, the onslaught was blinding. The greatest hits (the holiday bonanza along with the Bad Boys movies, Hitch, The Pursuit of Happyness, and I Am Legend) have cast a sepia-toned glow over his near-misses like Ali and The Legend of Bagger Vance.
Yet there's something about Hancock that feels like the move of a hero who finds himself wishing to turn back time for a replay, a chance to snag a little extra glory that got away. This guy, Hancock (Smith), is a drunken bum with a bad attitude and a heaping helping of power that's truly super, relative to the path of destruction he leaves in his wake. When he takes to the skies, craters and rubble remain.
When he saves a beached whale, he obliterates a boat sailing along the coastline. And when he finally submits to jail-time to atone for the consequences of his actions, he ends up shoving the head of an inmate up the posterior of another. For all the twisting of conventional wisdom, it's nothing we haven't seen before.
Hancock is a hero in the Charles Barkley mold. You know, the "Just because I have superpowers doesn't make me a role model" kind of guy. The film equivalent would be Martin Riggs from the early days of the Lethal Weapon franchise — before his domestication. Riggs lost his wife and his will to live. He was ready and willing to take any dare, except the one that would make him the most human, simply choosing to live. Like Riggs, Hancock even has a rundown trailer on the beach, his decrepit fortress of solitude where he can drown his sorrows (although he's more than willing to do that anywhere).
Of course, all of that will change when he encounters Ray (Jason Bateman), a PR guy intent on making the corporate world embrace its non-existent inner-saintliness. Hancock saves Ray from a train, which means he demolishes it and causes quite a stir among the bystanders, and becomes Ray's pet project, much to the chagrin of Ray's wife Mary (Charlize Theron). It's obvious that she has issues (both bad and good) with this bad boy and it doesn't help that her husband and young son Aaron (Jae Head) see through to the good.
The center of Hancock, though, is Smith, which makes it all perfectly clear, even when he's cursing and taking shots at his haters like a rampaging rapper at The Source Awards. Smith forgoes the mugging we have come to associate with him, attempting to lock into a character who, intriguingly, doesn't know himself or the true extent of his appeal. Hancock doesn't know he's considered good, and Smith exerts much energy to convince everyone that he doesn't recognize it either.
He gets a helping hand from Bateman who has become a go-to role player in a string of fascinating supporting jobs recently (see not only The Kingdom and Juno, but his wacked-out cameo in Smokin' Aces). Bateman is the all-too-human sidekick here, but he flashes his own super ability to stand up toe-to-toe with Smith, the beautiful and sexy Theron and all of the tonal shifts and outrageousness that director Peter Berg throws at the screen (from comic book CGI to handheld camera work reminiscent producer Michael Mann's gritty machismo.
Theron and Smith get to rough it up a bit here, which is a pleasant surprise for audiences who remember that they appeared together in Bagger Vance. There is a connection between Mary and Hancock, and the actors capture that link and something more with ease and grace. Sparks certainly fly between them, but the movie blunts the heat they generate in order to serve a greater good, which doesn't make Hancock as good and daring as it could have been, despite the star power of Mr. Smith.
Maybe this bad boy wannabe should have taken the holiday off and come back with a bigger chip on his shoulder and a little more fire in his loins. Grade: C-