For 20 minutes.
Will Smith's superhero film offers jokey action fantasy for little boys, star-crossed romance for their moms and expensive special effects for teens. There's gross-out comedy for the mouth-breathers, agonizing violence that belies its PG-13 rating for those who like their shootouts bloody, and a feel-good ending. But rather than layer its diverse tones and textures into a rich fantasy, "Hancock" tries one approach for a while, then stumbles to the next. Almost any moviegoer should be able to find something to enjoy, but it's hard to imagine anyone liking this mishmash from beginning to end.
The problems start early. Superhero movies work best when we understand the rules of their imaginative universe from the outset. "Hancock's" writers keep us in the dark for half the movie, making their antihero's motivations unclear. Hancock is a surly SuperDerelict with a drinking problem. (Since bullets don't hurt him but whiskey gives him blackouts and hangovers, the extent of his invulnerability is unclear from the outset.) He has superhuman strength, but he's an oaf. He doesn't fly as much as lurch through the air as if his internal gyroscope were broken.
When he's goaded into assisting the LAPD during a high-speed freeway chase (are L.A. freeways ever this fast-moving?), he causes millions of dollars in collateral destruction. So who is this guy? Everyone seems to know Hancock, but nobody knows much about him -- not even Hancock himself, thanks to a convenient dose of amnesia.
When Ray Embry (Jason Bateman), an idealistic PR man(!), sets out to rehabilitate the fallen crime fighter, he awkwardly asks Hancock to explain key elements of his back story. Is he an alien, an angel, a deity? We get piecemeal information that is crucial to understanding the antihero's uncouth attitude and alcoholism.
An origin story only makes sense to begin at the beginning. Withholding key details until the eleventh hour makes for rickety drama. Late in the game the sideline character of Ray's wife, Mary (Charlize Theron), leaps onto center stage to provide a sudden burst of romantic tension and clarify the script's murky superhero mythology.
Hancock's makeover into a popular superhero is the film's highlight. Bateman and Smith are splendid in their scenes together, an infinitely patient and soft-spoken mentor coaxing a stubborn student. Ray convinces his unwilling protégé to enter rehab, attend anger-management classes and serve prison time for his destructiveness. He coaches him on saying "Good job" to officers on the crime scene, even though Hancock protests that he wouldn't be needed if the police did a good job. Ray even persuades him to don a skintight costume like the comic book figures Hancock dismisses as looking "homo." Thus prepared, he thwarts a bank robbery, wins positive media coverage and wins the public's affection. But his troubles have just begun, as the mastermind behind the holdup (creepy Eddie Marsan) plots to attack Hancock at his most vulnerable spot.
Clocking in at a wearisome 92 minutes, "Hancock" never takes flight. Like its hero, it lurches ahead at top speed.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186