Peter Berg | 98 mins | DVD | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15*
Will Smith is the eponymous drunken vagrant, who also has the powers of Superman, in this under-appreciated superhero comedy-drama. Hated by the public for the destruction he causes while ‘helping’, and wanted by the authorities for the same — though they can’t catch him because, you know, superpowers — he gets an image makeover when he saves wannabe entrepreneur Jason Bateman. Bateman’s wife, Charlize Theron, is less sure of Hancock’s merits.
If you’ve only seen the humour-focused trailers, seeing Hancock described as a comedy-drama might come as a surprise. There’s a whole behind-the-scenes story here, it would seem, hinted at in various interviews and articles one can find scattered around. To boil it down, it seems as if screenwriters Vy Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan (yes, him of Breaking Bad) and, in particular, director Peter Berg thought they were making a character drama superhero movie, while studio executives were more interested in it being a superhero action-comedy. Only natural when you hire Will “Men in Black” Smith, I guess. While the marketing went all-out on the comedy angle, the film itself is torn between these two pillars, leaving viewers with mismanaged expectations — resulting in “under-appreciated”.
Tonally, it’s mixed throughout. For instance, it’s been shot with handheld close-up ShakyCam veracity, which works when it’s playing on “what if this were real?” emotional story beats, but feels at odds on the occasions it descends into comedic vulgarity. Some criticise Berg’s style fullstop, saying he’s taken a black comedy/satire and played it straight. Unsurprisingly, I don’t think that’s wholly fair. There’s a lot of stuff here that works as a serious-minded drama, suggesting Berg was on the right track, but it rubs against comedy stuff that feels like it’s from a Comedy. The extended cut includes an early sex/ejaculation joke/sequence that wasn’t in the theatrical cut because Berg thought it wasn’t funny and test audiences agreed. Goodness knows why it got put back, other than because of length — it accounts for over half of the extensions (more details here).
Essentially, I think the critics are damning Berg and co for not making the movie the critics think they should be making, and not giving them credit for making the movie they were trying to make. The marketing men are at fault here, or the audience for wanting a superhero comedy when they’ve sat down to a superhero drama. Unfortunately, it’s harder to defend when Berg’s work was indeed compromised, though by studio interference rather than by misunderstanding his own mind. Also by the fact his other films include crap like Battleship, so of course you might think he’s rubbish.
As if that wasn’t enough, there’s a controversial twist/change of direction halfway through. Fundamentally there’s nothing wrong with twists, but this engenders a bumpy transition, which initially seems not to work — the tone and meaning shift abruptly. However, if you go with it, the film settles back down and it pays off during the finale. A lot of viewers aren’t very good about trusting a movie and going with it these days, though. Again, however, occasional poor decisions make it trickier to defend. For instance (spoilers!), when Mary goes to visit Hancock after it’s revealed she has powers too, she’s dressed up like a supervillain, a complete change of style from her normal casual-suburban-mom look. Why the change? Why indeed, because a) she’s not a supervillain, and b) even if she were, why get changed?! It’s a kind of bait-and-switch: she’s made to look like a villain because we think that’s what she’s about to be revealed as, and a big hero-vs-villain fight follows too… but she isn’t. It’s not quite up there with the magically-changing Batsuits of Batman & Robin, but it’s the next level down.
While I’m bashing the film, let’s note that the CGI is appallingly weak. It’s hard to know how much that’s time passing and how much it was always weak, but considering it’s from the same year as Iron Man, I err to the latter. This may again be the result of behind-the-scenes travails, though: apparently it was supposed to contain 300 VFX shots, but actually has 525. Did anything go right on this film’s production?
On the bright side, Will Smith’s performance has garnered lots of praise, deservedly so. He could have been his usual charming self, making Hancock a funny goofball character. Instead, he plays the reality of this guy being a damaged loner. It might not make the film as consistently comedic as some would have liked, but it’s a more engaging and rewarding performance on the whole.
The film would work a lot better on the whole if the tone had been settled on as definitively as Smith’s performance, rather than trying to have its cake and eat it by mining both the “what if this were real?” and “haha, an unlikeable drunk superhero!” versions concurrently. For my money, however, if you treat Hancock as a fairly seriously-intended movie that was forced to contain more (half-arsed) action and (misjudged) comedy for the sake of box office, it’s not a bad experience at all.
Hancock is on 5* tonight at 9pm.
* The extended version is officially Unrated in the US. Many a time an “unrated” cut would mirror the theatrical version’s certificate, if only they’d bothered. However, theatrically Hancock was a PG-13, but only after it had been submitted twice before and received an R — which is probably what this version would be, then. ^