Tuesday, July 15, 2008

 

Warning: spoilers ahead. If you plan to see Hancock anytime soon, you probably don’t want to read this until you have done so.

Hancock is a mess. I can’t recall the last time I saw a major sci-fi flick with this many narrative holes – narrative canyons, really. Example: one week after a botched bank robbery that cost him his hand, the mastermind of the job is already in prison, outfitted with a prosthetic hook & teamed up with the two cons who most dislike our film’s eponymous hero. We learn that this minor mastermind (groomed to look like the replicant in Bladerunner who failed his psych test) is, by training, a psychology professor who originally put together a gang of grad students. Absolutely nothing ever comes of this seemingly significant & interesting detail, even as the trio break out of Norwalk & come hunting for Hancock.

Example: Our hero “gives himself up” to the law for the incidental damage he causes to buildings, trains, freeways and goes off to jail, and goes to court accompanied not by his lawyer, but by his PR guy. Yeah, I know: adding an extra character and giving him/her lines means having to pay them. But what’s wrong with this picture?

Example: Aforementioned PR guy, Ray Embry (played by Jason Bateman, a bland everyman for Will Smith & Charlize Theron to bounce off of), makes Hancock a superhero uniform to upgrade the street wino image Will Smith’s character has heretofore cultivated. It’s bulletproof so long as the character inside it is. How does it do that? Where did Embry come up with this? It’s a detail, but hey, that’s where the devil is in this production.

Example: Embry is trying to get his PR career off the ground. His wife appears to have no employment. They live in what has to be a multi-million dollar home in LA. Nice trick if you can do it.

Example: In a key scene at the hospital, Embry comes up with an ax to rescue Hancock from the one-handed psych prof. Not just one of those dainty little fireman’s hatchets you might find behind glass and under the word “Emergency.” A big, long-handled lumberjack ax. Nice to have when you need it, but where exactly do they keep these in your hospital?

Oh, and did I mention yet that there’s a second superhero in this plot, one who never rescues any of the citizens from scofflaws and whose only goal in life appears to be making meatballs on Thursday? And watching crime stories on local news. Why & what’s that about? It’s not like these are tossed-off details such as the bank robber’s degree in psych or the fact that Attila the Hun was totally cross-eyed – it’s a major element of the story but it’s never explored. In many ways, this is the most interesting character in the film. And an enormous narrative opportunity not taken.

I thought, while sitting there wondering if this would all make sense, well, sometimes the details you’re given in the original material – such as a graphic novel – create these problems themselves (just watch them try to shoehorn all the extraneous detail into The Watchmen if & when that classic ever makes it to the screen). But it turns out that Hancock isn’t an adaptation. TV writer Vincent Ngo created an original script – then called Tonight, He Comes – that was then rewritten by X-Files veteran Vince Gilligan, who added, for example, the second superhero.

Then there is the biggest gap of all in this film – its rampant homophobia. This occurs in at least four separate places and ways in the movie. The PR guy shows Hancock a series of comic book covers to get him into the idea of a superhero uniform and asks Will Smith what these remind him of. Every response Hancock gives ends on the noun homo. It’s in character & played for laughs & I probably wouldn’t be bothered by it if it weren’t for the other two incidents. Incident two involves a prison fight that is resolved by what most state penal codes would refer to as sodomy by an object (a human head). It’s played for laughs also, even as it propels two of the major baddies toward the film’s final conflict. When asked how it felt later, the psych prof has to prod the victim to “use his words.” In short, this biker type is the victim of a rape conducted by Hancock. The film may remind us of this, but it never suggests that Hancock’s actions are in any major way reprehensible. The third instance is the bully who is terrorizing the Embry’s kid. Why make him a longhair francophone whose name Michel rhymes with the female name Michelle? How does anyone with that profile become the leader of a gang, even in the white upper-class enclaves of LA? What is that about? Finally, there is the film’s favorite epithet: asshole. From beginning to end, that word is never very far from the surface.

Have I mentioned that I think this film is worth seeing? It is, if you can get beyond the homophobia, the narrative chasms & more gore than is usual in the sanitized violence of superhero films. The principle reasons are the acting of Charlize Theron, who is tremendous even if her character is an opportunity the film wastes, and Will Smith, who does a better-than-good job with a range of complex emotions here and is far less loveable than in any of his previous films. (If you thought George Clooney was unloveable in Michael Clayton, you have yet to see Will Smith blow his nose.) When ten-year-olds call Smith an asshole, it has a certain ring of accuracy.

I haven’t seen Theron in Ǽon Flux, her previous sci-fi effort, nor in The Legend of Bagger Vance, her earlier effort with Smith. So this is a side of her that was new to me – and she completely pulls it off. Not unlike Naomi Watts in King Kong, Theron tends to own every scene in which she plays, regardless of who else is on screen nor how strong they’re supposed to be. This is not always a plus. One of the hardest parts of the film to believe is why this woman would have taken up would have taken on Embry, a puppy-dog PR tyro who was then just a widower with an infant. At one point, Embry asks her about her past – you would have thought a married couple might have had that discussion awhile ago – but her back story is, as I’ve said, the Grand Canyon of this film’s missed opportunities. Somebody who just rolls her eyes when you ask about her relationship with JFK has more to say. For example, what did she tell Embry when they first met? And how do her relationships handle her failure to age?

This is not an unenjoyable bit of summer fluff. The premise – that being a superhero brings with it a major psychic toll is a theme that’s been around for some time (viz The Watchmen or The Dark Knight) and, since 9/11, it’s become rampant at the Cineplex. The idea of the one-of-kind being also being alcoholic is as old, at least, as The Man Who Fell to Earth. Hancock brings together & expands the range of these genres. And brings with it some first-rate acting that is just a pleasure to watch. But if you try to make this film work in your head, it’ll just drive you crazy.

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