We all know that Will Smith is the King Of Independence Day, and his newest movie, Hancock, about a sort of anti-superhero in search of a new image, is said to be on track for a high-flying $115 million opening weekend...despite a chorus of negative reviews from the country's major movie critics. A quite loud chorus, soon to be drowned out by Mr. Smith's cackles as he laughs all the way to the bank. Which of you will see it? Which of you won't? Check out the reviews and weigh in, after the jump.
"Hancock" has been packaged and heavily promoted as a summer blockbuster - a big, spectacular production starring the ever-likable Will Smith. It is indeed summer, and Mr. Smith plays the title role, but that's as far as any truth in advertising goes. The movie seems negligible; its running time is a mere 92 minutes. And it succeeds only at the hitherto-impossible task of making Mr. Smith disagreeable (though never boring; whatever he does, he's a movie star). He plays a gangsta superhero - a foulmouthed, misanthropic, booze-slugging slob who happens to have superpowers. It's a tricky notion done badly, though surely an oddity that will find a large audience. Any notions of demolishing black stereotypes - and what else could have possessed Mr. Smith to do this? - are dashed by the coarseness of it all, and by the narrative incoherence; a surprising plot twist turns a sloppy action-comedy into a totally different movie, and an even worse one.
To match the film's tonal shift after the thrilling twist, cinematographer Tobias Schliessler trades in the sun-bleached Los Angeles cityscape that marks Hancock's early adventures for gorgeously distorted close-ups rendered in a rain-soaked color palette. These closing scenes work as the audience - and Hancock - finally learn the secret to the superhero's orneriness.
Unlike bland Everymen from Bruce "Hulk" Banner and Peter "Spidey" Parker to Clark "Superman" Kent, Smith's reluctant superhero shares an invaluable superpower with Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man. Both may have screwed-up personalities, but at least they know how to crack a joke.
I just realized something. None of this matters. A critique of Hancock is an essay in irrelevance. It's Independence Day Week, and six times since 1996, that's meant a Will Smith movie - a mega-giga-gigantic hit. Independence Day; Men in Black; Wild Wild West; Men in Black II; I, Robot: He shows up, people line up. Thomas Jefferson used to own this holiday, but now the former Fresh Prince does. So why should critics even bother to review a new Will Smith movie? You'll go see it anyway.
Hancock can revel in schmuckery, of course, because you and I and cute kids and peaceful oldies worldwide know in advance that there's no way on Hollywood's green earth Will Smith will ever play someone seriously, dangerously unsavory. Charm is the star's armor on either side of the alien-human divide, whether he's a Fresh Prince, a Bad Boy, a Man in Black, the last man alive in New York City, or Muhammad Ali. And so, in the beginning, the movie - part comedy, part action-thriller, and a whole lot of earnest, addled mush about purpose, fate, and angels - lets Smith (who is also one of the producers) have fun goofing on all that has already served him so well as a performer: Here's a hero in need of remedial charm school.
Yet a dozen years after Independence Day, Smith has once again staked a claim to Independence Day, with the superhero subversion Hancock. And, like any good self-fulfilling prophecy, it will likely reign supreme at the box office because everyone has already assumed it would: Summer's other blockbusters have all deferentially ceded the field, so Hancock will go head-to-head against only a few limited releases and a kids-oriented film, Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, which just happens to star Smith's seven-year-old daughter, Willow, whom we can safely assume has been promised a lifetime of spinach if she doesn't take a dive for Daddy.
Which is a shame because, Smith's indisputable talents notwithstanding, Hancock is an utter mess.
The extent of that complexity doesn't emerge until the big reveal, which involves Ms. Theron's character and is so surprising that I heard several grown men loudly gasp. ("No way!") I was more struck by Ms. Theron, an actress who, I think, is capable of greater depth than most of her performances require, even those that try to rub the glamour off her. She helps Mr. Smith enrich the story's emotional texture, which is no small thing, since the movie itself starts to falter just when it begins to deepen. That's too bad because while "Hancock" is far from perfect - it feels overly rushed, particularly toward its chaotic end - it has a raggedness that speaks honestly to the fundamental human fragility that makes the greatest heroes super.
It's when this scenario plays out that Peter Berg's movie jumps the tracks. Writers Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan have concocted an outrageous, mind-boggling twist that comes so far out of left field you would need a crystal ball to see it coming.
No spoilers here, but it doesn't work, not in the short term and not in the big picture either. It's as if we've been whisked from one kind of movie - a brisk, superficial but entertaining high-concept comedy - and into the theater next door, where they're showing some sort of tragic "X-Men" knockoff. The last half-hour of this 92-minute movie is a fiasco.
Berg's shaky-cam technique doesn't help, nor does a weak, inadequate villain (played by Eddie Marsan). Still, it's rare - and startling - to see a big-budget movie fall apart so dramatically. Whether it was inspired by ego or economics, more than anything the turnaround feels like a colossal collective failure of nerve.
It's a strange feeling to see the summer's most promising premise self-destruct into something bizarre and unsatisfying, but that is the Hancock experience.
It has to be emphasized that though the film's trailers carefully hide it, Hancock has a blisteringly profane tongue. How diatribes that would make a stevedore blush got a PG-13 rating is a question for another day.
Still, it's a daring, even mildly challenging mixture for a superhero film, and while the pieces don't entirely add up, the puzzle is at least original. Smith is too much a ubiquitous superstar to entirely disappear into his role, but his playing against type offers its own flavors of comedy, and Bateman, in his comfortably well-worn role as a glib peacemaker, fills the charisma void left by Smith's stony performance. Hancock is an odd film-part My Super Ex-Girlfriend, part Transformers-esque messy blockbuster, part weird indie comic-but while it isn't necessarily as poignant as it wants to be, it manages the humor and heroics side of the equation admirably enough. If nothing else, it's worth it just to see a ready-made Superman-sized superhero in action without all the baggage of decades of retellings and reworkings; even looking at familiar faces working through a familiar genre, it's nice to be surprised for once.
Mr. Smith's charm helps sell the transformation of the character and the movie; part of the joke lies in seeing a megawatt star embrace his inner grouch with fantastical blunders, and part of the anticipation lies in seeing Hancock become, well, Will Smith, king of the summer box office. Some of the CG effects come off as chintzy, which may have as much to do with our general effects burnout than with deficiencies of this particular movie. (As David Denby recently noted in The New Yorker, we've reached a point where effects-driven movies come off as both too much and not enough.)
Your ultimate judgment of Hancock will likely hinge on whether or not you buy the film's dramatic identity shift. I found it rather sudden and perfunctory. I was also a little relieved to discover there's more here than initially meets the eye, that there's a movie to go along with the concept.
To say that Mary has a past would be the understatement of the summer. Let's just say her character makes no sense.
Nor are Mary's relationships with Ray or Hancock remotely plausible, even in a fantasy context.
Leaving behind the laughs for schmaltz, "Hancock" chickens out
at the last minute, lurching toward a cop-out happy ending that gives every indication of having been reshot at the behest of test audiences. Well, at least you won't be bored.
'Hancock' opens today, nationwide.