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Smith takes a big leap of faith

Mythology is full of creatures with the head of one animal and the body of another, from the gryphon (eagle above, lion below) to the Jersey Devil from my old stomping grounds (goat/dragon/etc.). “Hancock,” which delves into mythology itself, is such a beast: a sardonically funny comedy grafted after an hour onto a heavy emotional story and an explanation of events that makes less sense the longer you ponder it. Either portion might have made an even more satisfying film by itself, but they're still intriguing despite the awkward transition.

The trailers play up the comic elements, and that's the part I can discuss without fear of spoilers. We see the title character, an amnesiac who uses the name John Hancock for convenience, sleeping off a binge on an L.A. bench. A boy alerts him to a police chase on TV, and he opens a bleary eye. But Hancock cannot resist the chance to be a hero – he literally can't, for reasons apparent later in the film – and saves the day while damaging a national landmark.

Struggling public relations consultant Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) wants to pair up with Hancock to turn both their fortunes around. The surly, suspicious hero agrees to Ray's plan, acting politely in public and even going to prison briefly for “destroying” a train that crashed into him – until, of course, the cops need his help subduing Red (Eddie Marsan), a madman who has wired hostages in a bank with bombs. But Ray's wife (Charlize Theron), who's attracted to the indestructible amnesiac, insists that having him around will lead inevitably to tragedy.

“Hancock” is one of the rare action films that needed to be longer. Then changes in mood wouldn't be so abrupt, and director Peter Berg and writers Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan would've had more time to reveal things we want to know.

Details are muddled and a bit self-contradictory as they stand, and the filmmakers don't have the courage to take the story to its logical conclusion. I'd love to know what the last-minute reshoots changed; I'd guess the final few minutes of the film are new, though they seem a letdown to me. (Warning to parents: There's plenty of cursing, a fair bit of violence and one nasty scene you'd previously have said was anatomically impossible.)

That said, you have to admire any summer blockbuster that freshens and subverts the superhero genre, and you're in fine hands with these actors.

Smith has always enjoyed spoofing action traditions or playing them straight, and “Hancock” lets him do some of both. Bateman and Marsan hold down their generic sidekick/psycho roles, and Theron brings terrific range and intensity to her reed-thin part. If there's any justice – maybe even a cinematic Justice League – she'll get a starring role as a superhero someday.

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