Thursday, July 3, 2008

Grappling with Greatness

Here’s my original logline: Don’t even buy into the negative hype among 70% of film critics out there. It’s all bullshit. But perhaps that’s burying the lead, so let me just say…

Hancock is one of the two best studio movies of the summer, and will almost assuredly go down as one of the best and most beautifully ambitious experiences of the year.

The summer of 2008 has been pretty good overall, with occasional glimpses of greatness (can you say Speed Racer?) even in the traditionally schlocky studio fare. There have also been some truly wonderful independent films out there, if you have been able to find them (The Visitor, Son of Rambow). But in terms of breaking new ground--and even more powerfully and significantly, taking old ground and giving it never-before-seen depth and poignancy--there have been two amazing journeys into the heart. Both have been unexpected, both have shockingly come from major studios, and coincidentally, both opened within mere days of one another: WALL-E was the first….and now, Hancock.

Like WALL-E, Hancock is a film in which the joy of the unknown leads not only to splendid, unexpected surprises, but to an uncommon complexity and remarkable depth. The story director Peter Berg weaves is surprising, sneaky, and moving when you’d least expect it. It is not necessarily a “perfect” film like WALL-E is, but in its rough-and-tumble style, it finds grace and elegance…its own sort of perfection.

If you’ve seen the trailers, you know the set-up: Hancock (Will Smith) is the world’s only superhero, but he is not the welcomed, lovable presence of a Superman or Spider-Man. Instead, he is a drunken jerk who causes more damage than he ultimately prevents, and who is more of an annoyance to the people he saves than a venerable hero. The world doesn’t like Hancock, and Hancock doesn’t like the world. Enter Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), a struggling PR man who has a very true desire to make the world a better place. When the drunken Hancock saves Ray’s life in the latest of his cataclysmic “heroic exploits,” Ray sees an opportunity to give this misunderstood superhuman a much-needed makeover.

Hancock’s slow and reluctant image transformation fills the film’s first 2/3, and is treated with a very Berg-ian edge in its photography and content. Smith plays Hancock as a tortured soul who is truly baffled about the nature of his identity, and who has subsequently reverted into a shell of alcoholism and self-loathing. Bateman fills Ray with his signature wit and good humor, but also brings a unique soulfulness to the character that reverberates for the duration of the film. The Smith-Bateman relationship is what drives the film’s first two acts, an interplay that is very funny and also sets up powerful arcs for both characters later in the film. Lurking in the background is Ray’s wife Mary (Charlize Theron), who does not think very favorably of Hancock being in her husband’s life, and who seems unnerved by the superhero’s very presence.

The first 50 or so minutes of Hancock are wildly entertaining on every level, and slowly unveil the intimate details that allow us to fully understand who Hancock and Ray are, and why their relationship works. The final 40 minutes of Hancock, however, not only expertly cover the standard “origin story” of this mythical superhero, but also take powerful and unexpected turns that make the experience of the film positively stunning. I don’t want to get too deep into a discussion of the film’s intricacies, but I do want to analyze the themes that begin to form, so here is the inevitable warning…


Okay, for those who have seen the film, you are fully aware of what happens. And the beauty of revealing Hancock’s true origin, his mythical, centuries-old relationship with Mary, and the ultimate power of his discovery is what puts Hancock over the top and into greatness territory. Here is a character who is not at all comfortable with his superhuman powers, basically because he doesn’t even know how he obtained them. When we learn of his tumultuous history with Mary, of their almost cruelly antithetical cosmic relationship, it closes the book on Hancock’s confusion but opens the door to a new, even more complex challenge. Now that he understands who he is, where he came from, and what he has to do (which basically means deciding to accept his role as an immortal superhero or stay with his cosmic lover and become susceptible to a very finite mortality), he must choose between sacrificing his true love and sacrificing his unique power. 

Obviously, it is a very messy, very complicated decision to make, and Hancock cannot ultimately make the full circle from ignorant, reckless anti-hero to full-fledged superman until he is fully aware of his purpose and fully aware of the reality of his existence. He is meant to save people, but that lot is a solitary one. Once he comes in contact with Mary, both their powers subside until they are fully human—fully mortal. And when death is staring him in the face, with the knowledge that not only will he die but so will his cosmic life mate, Hancock knows what he must do…go away from Mary, and accept his role as one whose purpose is to serve humanity. It may not be his true desire, but it is what is right for Mary, for Ray, for the world, and for Hancock himself. It is a powerful transformation and a sobering realization, one that beautifully weaves the lives of these characters into a film about love and sacrifice.


Hancock, in essence, is about a superhuman learning to be human, an immortal in search of his mortality. The minutiae of the character’s fascinating mythology does not permit for much of a mortal life, but the true journey of Hancock, the beautiful transformation he must make, is to fully discover the how’s and why’s of who and what he is, and to truly accept his eternal place in the world. It is a challenging and rewarding journey for a character to make, and in Hancock the filmmakers have created the rawest, most emotionally complex superhero ever put on film.

Back in May, I gushed over the delights of Iron Man, and I stand by what I wrote—the film is just pure fun, one that knows precisely how to please the crowd and does so in spades. But in the realm of filmmaking and storytelling complexity, Hancock blows Iron Man out of the water. It is, in fact, exactly the kind of film Iron Man should have been. Both films are centered on flawed characters and both films track the rise of selfish men as they shed their anti-heroic shells and fulfill their destiny as true heroes. But where Iron Man is all surface giddiness, Hancock runs much, much deeper. Not only does Peter Berg know how to bring a relentless sharp edge to his rough-and-tumble visuals—much as I love Iron Man, there is more intimacy and intensity in each single frame of Hancock than the entirety of Iron Man—but he is also strikingly adept at cutting right to the core of his characters; Berg is a director who understands and explores the dark elements of the human (and superhuman) soul, and who appreciates the intimacy of humanity. Both Hancock and Tony Stark are selfish pricks at the beginning of their stories, but where Tony Stark is portrayed as a lovable louse, even an enviable louse, Hancock is strictly a jerk. Berg makes no bones about allowing the biggest, most likable movie star on earth appear drunken, lazy, selfish, and downright offensively rude. It is this no-nonsense portrayal that makes us truly see the tortured soul of Hancock—and what makes his ultimate transformation all the more powerful.

Another of Hancock’s brilliant twists on our expectations—and this just came to me as I wrote the previous paragraph—is that it starts where a simpler superhero film would end. Whereas Tony Stark’s arc is becoming Iron Man, Hancock begins his journey with his powers fully intact. It is learning how to use them, how to treat others, and how to understand himself that make his journey complete. Every detail of Hancock exists on a more nuanced, complex level.

At the center of the film's overwhelming success is its director, the aforementioned Peter Berg. In just five films—the bizarro Very Bad Things, the goofball blast The Rundown, the hard-hitting Friday Night Lights, the perceptive and powerful The Kingdom, and now Hancock—he has transitioned from actor-slash-director to full-fledged auteur. His visual style has become a signature that is plagiarized at least three times a year. His command of storytelling is just as challenging and edgy, which has translated into relatively small box-office and tepid reception of each of his films--save The Rundown, which was too fun to be universally hated, and Friday Night Lights, which caught on as a critical darling. With Will Smith headlining his latest work, Berg is sure to celebrate his highest-grossing film yet, but true to form, the film packs much more punch—both emotionally and intellectually—than the average summer fluff-goer expects. As a result, the film will surely have some audiences walking out confused, disappointed, or downright angry. Already the film is running a 36% on Rotten Tomatoes, which shows how even film critics—those special beings who are supposed to appreciate complexity in the films they see—are washing their hands of this “mess” (which is probably the most frequently occurring word in most print reviews I’ve read).

This ridiculous outrage underlines what is wrong with film criticism today: it has stopped becoming about celebrating film and more about fulfilling prescribed expectations. When a film like Iron Man or Indiana Jones delivers on the perceived promise of glossy thrills, critics can’t contain their joy. When a film like Hancock appears to be another cog in the summer blockbuster machine but instead aims higher and twists not only expectations, but the very nature of its blockbuster genre, it is too much to take. Critics can only praise a film for being audacious and powerful if that is what they expect going in. If they expect the same old-same old, anything that comes close to rocking that boat gets rejected automatically.

I applaud Berg for sticking to his convictions with this very intriguing material—certainly with full knowledge that it would create a stir. And I applaud Will Smith for continuing to seek out projects that make us think, feel, and discuss. Here is the biggest, most consistently profitable movie star in the universe, and his last two films consist of a post-apocalyptic zombie film that was more quiet and introspective than it was an action blow-out (the sublime I Am Legend) and now an edgy superhero movie in which the “hero” is a drunken stooge, but that is merely the surface set-up for an intimate, keenly-observed tale of sacrifice, humanity, and love. Kudos also to Charlize Theron and Jason Bateman, both of whom also continue to take chances on important projects with brilliant results.

Greatness can be difficult to deal with, as evidenced by the way Hancock struggles with his own prolific power. Hancock is a great film that many find difficult to wrestle with. But it is one of the most unexpected and rewarding cinematic experiences you will see all summer.


Vigilante said...

I'm a big fan of Will Smith, so I will be putting Hancock on my NetFlix queue, on your recommendation!

the WIZARD, fkap said...

The WIZARD 6 Word Review:

Super movie with heart and plot.

In even fewer words, J., I agree with you.

I'm surprised by the generally poor reviews. How did so many people miss what you and I (and K.) all saw?

I loved the movie and found depth so rare in a summer blockbuster.

J McKiernan said...

Way to show me up with that six-word review, Wiz...

...I'll set the record straight: I could write short-ass reviews. I just choose to be a long-winded bastard. Plus, with a movie like Hancock, I am so surprised and delighted that analyzing the film's greatness becomes fun for me. Hopefully loyal readers like yourself will go along for the ride.

But anyway...what a movie. So glad you loved it, too. I can understand the negativity from an audience standpoint--the film goes deeper than most popcorn moviegoers are comfortable with. But as for the critics, I am stunned. From my ample experience observing the critical mass, it comes down to what I wrote in my review: critics have a tendency to like what they choose to like, and hate what they choose to hate. This is not a rule, necessarily, and even if it was, it doesn't apply to ALL critics. But it is a trend I've noticed.