Hancock (2008)

Hancock (2008)

Will Smith goes against type as an arrogant superhero in this deeply flawed would-be satire

Director: Peter Berg

Cast: Will Smith (John Hancock), Charlize Theron (Mary Embrey), Jason Bateman (Ray Embrey), Eddie Marsan (Kenneth “Red” Parker Jnr), Jae Heard (Aaron Embrey)

Back in 2008, everyone was entertained by the idea that the most charming man in the world was pretending to be an arrogant, entitled arsehole. Sadly, in 2022, when Will Smith is synonymous with entitled public slapping, the joke feels a little different.

In Hancock, Smith plays the eponymous superhero, a drunken dickhead, who saves people without giving a damn about them or the millions of dollars of damage he causes while doing so. When he saves the life of PR man Ray (Jason Bateman) – wrecking a train in the progress – Ray decides to help Hancock change his image. His wife Mary (Charlize Theron) is less than happy about it – but is there a deeper mystery to her discomfort?

Needless to say there is: and the reveal of what it is marks a tonal shift in a messy film that never quite knows what it is. But that’s because the entire film is basically a sketch thinly stretched out over 85 minutes. What if Superman was real and also a complete arsehole? What would an irresponsible, drunken, unpleasant hero be like? And hell, wouldn’t we stop thanking him and instead start getting really pissed off when he trashes a freeway and several buildings, while chasing some trigger-happy bank robbers?

That’s basically the core of the film: setting up the unlikeable hero, watching him tell people to go to hell and use his powers against people who annoy him. See him get humiliated by going to prison (Ray’s genius PR idea to get people on Hancock’s side) and then eventually resolving a bank robbery with excessive, awkward politeness. It’s one joke. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good joke. It would make a great recurring gag on Saturday Night Live or something. But it never manages to be anything more than that.

Peter Berg’s film radically shifts gear for the final thirty minutes or so. A second superhero is introduced, a poorly explained and illogical backstory is shoe-horned in and info dumps of character background start to get dropped in (the entire backstory, plot and motivation of Eddie Marsan’s nominal villain is explained in an overheard TV broadcast). What had been a farce suddenly turns into a clumsily intense relationship drama between two people with no chemistry. It ends in a final fight in a hospital which features blood, shooting, tears and a joke about a hand being sliced off. It’s all over the place.

Will Smith just about holds it together: and the fact that he managed to make this not-particularly-funny or rewarding film into the fourth biggest hit of its year is a tribute to what Box Office Gold he was at the time. It’s a decent role for him, and Smith does the humour well. But, after his frank autobiography on his dark side (not to mention that infamous slap), it feels less like Smith playing against type, and more him exposing parts of his own personality. But he carries the entire film with gusto, even if he can’t make the final tonal mess work.

Berg’s direction pitches between way-too-intense and flatly-comedy-free. He drills into emotion in the final act, as if he’s forgotten that this was supposed to be a super-hero satire – but totally fails to bring enough character or reality to the story for its seriousness to work. For the first half, he struggles to bring much personality to the film (I suppose that is Smith’s job). It becomes a film that raises the odd smile but, despite its very short length, outstays its welcome.

Bateman is good value as the do-good PR man (strangely, he’s introduced as a real hotshot, even though it seems he’s completely useless based on nearly everything we see him do). He has a strange chemistry with Charlize Theron, wasted in an incoherent part. No one else gets a look in.

Tonally, Hancock is a mess with a few good gags (Hancock casually tossing a beached whale back into the sea, hitting a yacht, is funny). Its novelty appeal in 2008 – “Look! Will Smith can be mean!” – has disappeared today. Nothing in it is remotely memorable, making a decent joke never anything more than functional. It falls apart in the final stretch as it reaches for a depth it isn’t strong enough to deliver. Can you believe this was one of the biggest hits of 2008? Has anyone really watched, or thought about it, since?

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