Being a movie star carries an immense amount of responsibility. How are you going to spend all that money? Where will you park your 20 cars? Are you really going to have to buy that restaurant just so they’ll stay open a little longer? Kidding aside, there’s a built-in trap to being one of the biggest movie stars in the world. According to the box office receipts, your adoring public will see you in ANYTHING. The public is a fickle mistress, however, prone to sudden shifts in taste and mood. Make one false move and your career goes kaput. Fortunately for Will Smith, he’s been a famous for so long his star power is practically bullet-proof. With the dual release of Hancock and Seven Pounds in 2008, he reached his breaking point. Indeed, it would be four years until a new Will Smith film would be released, and it would be the safe bet, Men in Black 3 (2012).
In a Hollywood Reporter Roundtable discussion, he said, in his usual upbeat but oblivious alien fashion, that he needed to focus on himself. He had to shift from “product to people.” This is the same semi-infamous interview where he explained his reasoning for turning down Django Unchained (2012). If you’re wondering, “love” was the answer. As for his 2008 break, it may have been beneficial on a personal level, but he’s never been able to recover his status as an unbeatable box office draw.
Compare his run from the mid-90’s leading up to 2008, which included Bad Boys, Independence Day, Men in Black, Ali, Hitch, The Pursuit of Happyness, and I Am Legend, to his post-Hancock/Seven Pounds run with After Earth, Collateral Beauty, Gemini Man, and Bad Boys for Life. Sure, there are spotty patches of success and failure in both time frames. Baggar Vance was an outright flop and even though Wild Wild West did terrible critically, it still made money, mostly due to kids buying tickets to WWW but sneaking into the South Park movie. On the other end of the spectrum, Focus and Concussion were met with mostly positive reviews but couldn’t match the massive box office of his previous blockbusters. Even financial successes like Suicide Squad and Aladdin were more indicative of the DC Universe and Disney’s marketing ability rather than Smith’s star power alone. It’s clear the public loved Will Smith and would see him in anything. I Am Legend is a particularly important credit in his filmography as it was a testament to his charm and charisma that the first half of the film featured only him…and that wonderful dog.
Hancock is not Avatar, meaning a film that everyone saw but nobody really likes. It’s more important as an example of Smith’s continued experimentation with darkening his screen persona while trying to maintain the same level of likability. It’s a balancing act that results in a breezy, often compelling film that feels deeply compromised. That didn’t stop people from seeing it. A 600 million worldwide gross is proof Will Smith could do wrong.
If writer Vy Vincent Ngo had had his way, Hancock, originally titled Tonight, He Comes, would have been much, much darker. What’s fascinating is that with Smith’s star power at its peak, he probably could have gotten that version made. Smith, like most of the famous male movie stars, is too savvy to think he could get away with playing an unredeemable antihero in a major Hollywood star vehicle. The script was in development hell for years and had multiple directors attached before actor-turned-director Peter Berg took the job. He stated that the material needed to be “lightened up,” which would be a surprising statement coming from the director of Very Bad Things (1998) if it weren’t also clear he was playing the Hollywood game. An uncredited John August and credited writer Vince Gilligan (who was also preparing his masterwork Breaking Bad at the time) rewrote the script to make the film more universally appealing while trying to maintain its nihilistic attitude.
From the very first scene, it’s clear that our beloved Will is not the charming jokester with the million-watt smile we’re used to. He’s passed out on a bench, empty liquor bottles lying askew, when a child approaches him. Knowing who he is, the kid points out a high-speed pursuit on a nearby television involving some Vietnamese gentlemen with guns. Hancock tells the kid to scram and we get some always-welcome swearing from a child. He calls Smith an “asshole.” This is the major running joke of the film and reflects the easy-target, cliché quality of the script. Somebody calls the hero a name, which could be about their height, weight, mental stability, what have you, then our hero gets mad. Hancock shoots into the sky, leaving the bench and sidewalk a pile of rubble. If you think his liftoff is bad, you should see his landings.
A psychological aspect the movie fails to explore is why Hancock feels the need to do any superhero acts at all. It’s revealed that he can fly, is super strong, immortal, and invulnerable. Those are the usual traits of a super hero, but due to his amnesia from 80 years prior, he has no origin story nor a tragic past which necessitates his need to bring criminals to justice. The argument could be made that as comic books became popular throughout the previous century, he figured this was what he was meant to do. His antisocial, alcoholic, and violent tendencies indicate that he has no real desire to help people, he just has nothing better to do. The movie may have benefited by trying to figure out why this man, who woke up with these powers, does what he does. He could obviously go in a different direction and be an unstoppable super villain, but he’d more likely become a performer for cash or simply a hermit.
The extended cut runs a mere 10 minutes longer than the 92 minute theatrical cut. In the age of Marvel, this film would be a minimum two hours and some change. It’s both a blessing and a curse that a film with so many possibilities opts for a straight-forward redemption story with an obvious twist halfway through. For a movie with such a rich concept, it feels like a missed opportunity. Granted, no one knew that Iron Man (2008), released only a couple months prior, would lay the groundwork for a series of films that would literally change the film industry. Hancock now stands as a bit of an oddity. An anti-superhero film that doesn’t go down as dark a path as Brightburn (2019), but tries something different before superhero films became all the rage.
The destruction Hancock causes is a lot of fun to watch and its refreshing that he’s held accountable, unlike heroes of the past who would leave a mess behind with no regard for the poor clean-up crews. Say what you will about Superman IV, at least he helped fix The Great Wall. How that power works, I do not know. Of course, he stops the bad guys in the car but absolutely smashes the hell out of the freeway. Tons of news reports demand Hancock’s arrest for all the damage he’s done to the city. There are unanswered questions, mainly like how does he make money and particularly whether the authorities have tried to bring him down. I’d like to think the filmmakers are giving the audience some credit and assume we understand that they can’t really do anything but complain.
The always charming Jason Bateman plays Ray, a Public Relations expert, although ‘expert’ might be pushing it since he’s introduced trying to get board members to give away their product in a show of goodwill. The board, which includes Ali director Michael Mann and Winter’s Tale director Akiva Goldsman, is aghast. Give away stuff…for free? On his way home, he’s nearly hit by a train but Hancock arrives to wreck the day. It’s realistic that the crowd who gathers criticizes Hancock for A) not just picking up Ray’s car instead of flipping it onto another set of cars, and B) destroying the train instead of just letting it pass. The angry citizens are absolutely correct, but Ray, being a sweet guy, thanks Hancock for saving his life and ends up inviting him to dinner.
The fun hook of the film is Ray using his PR skills to repair Hancock’s notorious reputation. It’s clear that although Hancock hates being called an “asshole,” he is, in fact, an asshole. Bateman is a master improviser, especially since his comeback on Arrested Development, and his reactions to some of Hancock’s more notable disasters have just the right mix of bemused astonishment and very light reprimanding. Many critics regard the first half to be superior to the second half, and I’m inclined to agree. Hancock is convinced to turn himself over to the authorities and he’s sentenced to eight years in prison. The prison scenes are fun and the film doesn’t shy away from a darkly funny moment when one threatening prisoner is shoved into the ass of another inmate. Smith’s history as a heroic action star does make it hard to swallow that he finds it so difficult to be polite or grateful, but it’s easy to ignore.
Having re-watched the official trailer, I credit the film with not giving away the twist, but it can’t help dropping some significant shots of Charlize Theron and anyone with a pause button could probably surmise what’s going to happen. Still, upon “meeting” Hancock, Mary (Theron) merely acts apprehensive while her son Aaron (Jae Head) is enamored. The movie is worth a second viewing to catch the subtleties in both the dialogue and Theron’s behavior. Of course, it’s been long enough to spoil the fact that she’s a superhero as well. M. Night Shyamalan’s examination of the superhero mythos concluded (for now) with Glass (2019) and although his dialogue is terrible and his ideas are far from perfect, a secret society of powerful beings is a far better plot device than Theron’s vague explanation. Whether they’re gods or not, they’ve existed for thousands of years and when fate brings them together, they become mortal by being close to one another. They’re the last of their kind and there’s a subtle racial aspect to their backstory. It’s never spoken, but since they become mortal and therefore vulnerable, it’s clear that when Hancock woke up in 1931, he had been heading to see Frankenstein with Mary. They were attacked by a gang of racist bigots. He couldn’t remember who she was so she left him, assuming they’d never meet again.
In the film’s big set piece, Mary, who seems to think that sunglasses will hide her identity, fights Hancock after he calls her “crazy.” Obviously a reference to the “asshole” thing, it’s obvious and on-the-nose, but anything to see them fight, I suppose. This scene comes after Hancock has foiled a well-shot bank robbery orchestrated by Red (a very overqualified Eddie Marsan) and he’s now become a hero. In their subsequent fight, they destroy streets and buildings, but what’s most bizarre is the sudden lightning storm. It seems to be an indication of their godlike-status, but it comes off as random and unexplained, merely a reason to add a dramatic aspect to the big fight scene. Their fight ends outside a building where Ray is giving another presentation, so now the cat’s out of the bag.
Red decides he’s been rehabilitated enough and takes a few fellow inmates with him to put some hurting on Hancock. Of course, this is a silly plan since he can’t hurt Hancock, but lucky for Red, Hancock is becoming mortal. After hitting rock bottom and snagging a whiskey, he interrupts a robbery and ends up getting shot. Rushed to a hospital, Mary, then later Ray and Aaron, visit. Red and his crew arrive and Mary takes a bullet for Hancock. There’s a massive fight scene which is very cool but the rules get a little murky. He was far away from Mary when he got shot, but he was injured. He’s able to be hurt here too, but now he’s even closer, yet he retains his godlike strength. Mary dies and Red, having lost one hand to Hancock and a sharp frisbee, shoots him multiple times. Ray takes Red down at the last minute and Hancock, knowing he has get away to save Mary, literally flies to the moon, causing her to recover. A month later, Mary, Ray, and Aaron are at the fair and Hancock calls. He tells Ray to look at the moon and he’s somehow imprinted, in bright red, the marketing logo Ray was pitching at the beginning of the film. I had forgotten about this silly logo so it didn’t really register for me. Hancock is now a full-fledged superhero battling bad guys in New York City.
Peter Berg is a smart and talented filmmaker. Although his career would take some damage for Battleship (2012), Lone Survivor (2013) remains a solid and brutal war movie. Hancock’s many contrivances and plot holes make it all the more tragic that his directorial choices tend to be correct. Hancock is an unapologetic asshole and a lot of other films would give him more slack. The problem here is that even though there are fantastical elements, the world it creates never feels realistic since there’s very little cause-and-effect. Part of Ray’s house is destroyed? Meh. They let Hancock out of jail to stop the robbery. OK, but shouldn’t he go back in? Shouldn’t we figure out how he’ll be repaying his debts? And there are some real “fuck it, nobody will care” bits here and there, most notoriously a scene that remains in the theatrical cut where Mary flies to Hancock’s trailer but appears to be leaving in a car in a bit from a deleted scene. Cut to an overhead shot and now the car is gone and she’s flown off.
Hancock constantly struggles with the need to show a lost and broken man but not make things too depressing. There are very few performers who can pull this off, but Smith is fortunately one of them. Berg, being an actor first, surrounds him with fine supporting actors, including a great appearance by Donald Gibb and Ralph Richeson as bickering convicts. Eddie Marsan is an odd choice to play a redneck villain, but obviously Berg wanted a great actor instead of a traditional heavy. It’s also nice to see Bateman and Theron repeat the chemistry they had on that odd but very funny season of AD where she played an “MRF.”
2008 represented a crossroads for Smith. He had already received his second Best Actor nomination, proving once and for all that he was a dramatic actor. The effort to have it both ways with the blockbuster Hancock and the Oscar-bait Seven Pounds felt calculated and obvious. No one can blame him for wanting to take a break. He’d been working hard for over twenty years. It’s just unfortunate he’d have to finish his remarkable first run with a film that, though exciting, still misses the mark. As Homer Simpson once said, “Eh, it was good, but not great.”