I’m not used to writing a statement like this, so please forgive me if I pass out from the shock of disbelief: Peter Berg’s direction saves “Hancock.” There, it’s out on the page for the world to see. Clearly the cinema gods are pleased with me, because I just watched a Peter Berg film and I didn’t want to punch the screen afterwards.
Hancock (Will Smith) is a superman who can fly, is impervious to bullets, and has staggering strength. He’s also an alcoholic and a social misfit, leaving a trail of wreckage behind every crime-stopping spree. Ray (Jason Bateman) is a publicist looking to help Hancock soften his image and reverse his reputation. Instructing him to put the bottle down and start becoming a productive member of society, Ray and Hancock become close friends while the hero rises from destructive drunk to uneasy hero, much to the concern of Ray’s cautious wife, Mary (Charlize Theron), who believes Hancock should be kept as far away from her as possible.
It’s the sheer energy of Will Smith that helps “Hancock” to find its footing early on in the picture. Relishing his chance to play a total cretin, Smith leans into the role with style, embracing Hancock’s slurred bile toward civilians and his reluctance to use his powers in a more safety-conscious manner. It’s an amusing turn for Smith, who doesn’t merely lay back into the comfortable position of an unbeatable superhero; the actor clearly wants to be challenged by the role and fills Hancock with a surprising vulnerability to go with the generous portions of acerbic comedy, the best emerging from Hancock’s bottle-clutching attitude and distaste for the general public.
Berg as a film director is a concept I’ve never been comfortable with. The man adores his shaky-cam aesthetic, which usually reveals his enormous laziness and impatience with the dramatic process (“The Kingdom,” “Friday Night Lights”), and his sense of humor has a pretty pungent track record (“The Rundown,” “Very Bad Things”). That said, Berg silences some of his obnoxious tics for “Hancock,” a film that he can’t simply coast through on invented adrenaline alone. It’s a byzantine screenplay for reasons I can’t fully reveal for fear of setting off spoilers alarms, but this tale of an askew hero is rich with character flaws and elaborate plot twists, and it’s up to Berg to find a center of gravity for the whole production. It’s not a revelatory piece of work, but for Berg, it’s his first step toward crafting actual human interaction. He’s able to find an endearing emotional core for the film that’s not explored to the fullest extent, but the mere fact that there’s something other than pure action tearing up the screen is a miracle of sorts.
Berg is less skilled at stapling “Hancock” together. Reportedly sliced down from a longer, R-rated cut, the final PG-13 version of the film plays fast and loose with plot turns. Where did Hancock come from? How did Ray and Hancock find a speed for their friendship? Why is Mary so agitated? There are many questions unanswered within the finished film, but what’s worse are the obvious holes in the narrative that were clearly laid out to explore the characters further, only to be scraped out as a result of impatient test audiences. “Hancock” runs just under 90 minutes, and while the swiftness is tempting, the missing information adds up fast, spilling over into the bewildering finale that puts Hancock’s immortality to the test while completely failing to adequately explain a critical plot twist.
Perhaps it’s all just set-up for the inevitable sequel.
“Hancock” is horrendously disjointed and barely manages to tell a story, but I was delighted by its charisma and Will Smith’s unexpected middle-finger timing. It’s not a smooth experience, but “Hancock” pleases more than it disappoints, leaving further installments plenty of room to build on what Berg has started here.