Director    Peter Berg
Starring    Will Smith, Jason Bateman, Charlize Theron, Eddie Marsan, Jae Head
Release    JUL 2 (US) JUL 2 (UK)    Certificate 12A
4 stars


28th June 2008

Holy shit, Batman! An original superhero story! No stigma attached; no fanboy preconceptions; no bitching about bad casting; no in-built audience to pander to. Just an honest to Zod, original idea for a film about a superhero that's not ripped from the pages of a comic or a TV show or a website or a painting or a dirty limerick. Hancock almost deserves four stars for this reason alone. The reason it does get four stars is because the idea is a fantastic one, and the execution is just as well realised.

Will Smith plays the titular hero, who differs from your average spandex-clad do-gooder in that he sleeps on an LA park bench, stinks of booze and hates everybody. In short, he's the incredible jerk - a super-hobo, if you will. There's no origin story; no hero montage; no super-foe destroying the city. Just a pissed-off, stinky superhero who'd just as rather sleep off his hangover than save a life. How can you not fall in love with this concept? How much more relatable would Superman be if he got wasted once in a while? "Fuck you Lois... [burps]... Ah'm gonna get me some fuckin' super-pussy!" And then he goes to crack on to Wonder Woman but gets rejected so ends up falling asleep outside the Fortress of Solitude with his pants around his ankles and puke on his cape. That one's copyright, Bryan Singer.

For the first 45 minutes, Hancock exploits this doozy of a premise to its fullest; we see him cause freeway pile-ups, an accidental train crash and widespread chaos throughout the city, his good intentions counting for nought. Smith looks like he's having a ball playing the anti-hero for once - smashing up buildings, tossing petulant kids into outer space and drunkenly insulting citizens ("I can smell the booze on you!" yells one unimpressed bystander. "That's 'cos I been drinking, bitch!" comes the reply). He's less an embittered, hard-drinking Tony Stark, more a lovable fuck-up.

Even when Jason Bateman's kindly PR guru steps in and attempts to mould Hancock into a proper superhero - sending him to jail to atone for his destruction - Smith plays it stone cold and aloof, without an ounce of his Fresh Prince/Independence Day bravado: not so much "Aww hell no!" than "Aww shit..." Thinking about it: have you ever seen Will Smith be bad in anything before? This is grade-A work of a genuine goddamn movie star for our generation; enjoy him before he turns into a full-blown Scientologist. (Magic 8-Ball says this is definitely going to happen in the next two years.)

Where Hancock falters is the insistence to shoe-horn in a more conventional story arc - the super-hobo act only lasts the first half before he straightens up, flies right and comes face to face with some home truths (including one particularly surprising revelation around the hour mark). Being dumped in the middle of Hancock's world without explanation works perfectly - you buy the concept without question. But the more you learn about his origins, the less interesting the film gets: it feels like two film's worth of exposition crammed into one. The final act warrants comparison with My Super Ex-Girlfriend - selling it short perhaps, seeing as the script has been floating around Hollywood for almost a decade - but thankfully Hancock comes off as by far the better film. Arguably, it lacks a good villain as well, but you should be more than happy with the substitute.

Director Peter Berg does sterling work marrying the action with the movie's comedic elements. In fact, it's difficult to remember an action-comedy that's quite so perfectly balanced - the opening car chase is little more than an extended intro but would befit any po-faced thriller. (It probably helps that Michael Mann is acting producer; if anyone can make Los Angeles look great it's him). Berg is fast maturing into a fine director: make no mistake, this is a titanic undertaking - action, comedy and romance, remember - but he nails it. His next film is a remake of Dune; here's hoping he hasn't shot his blockbuster bolt too early.

The central conceit is bulked out with some wonderful touches - Hancock shaves with his fingernails, hits basketball hoops from across the prison yard and flies (and lands) with all the grace of a dying swan. The whole concept works as a witty counter-point to the suspension of disbelief usually required from the superhero genre: the fact that Hancock is in jail yet can fly out whenever he likes is pleasingly silly. It's typical of a movie that never gets bogged down in semantics when it can dismiss concerns with a well-timed laugh.

With Smith bringing his A-game and excellent support from Bateman and wife Charlize Theron (must... resist... Arrested Development reference), Hancock is what happens when you have talented people working on quality material: it's really a no-brainer that it works so well. It's a shame that we'll probably never get another big-budget film that doesn't lend itself to an extended franchise, but Hancock earns that right; it's an irony that this fantastic original idea will just leave you gasping for a sequel. Ali

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