Tuesday, July 1, 2008

From the Archive: "Hancock" Film Review

Film Rating: C

Welcome to The Archive, a comprehensive collection of reviews dating back to 2007, originally written for The Denver Post’s YourHub.Com website and print edition!  In the archive, you’ll find hundreds of movie, DVD, Blu-Ray, and TV reviews, along with other special features.  You can access the complete Archive Collection by clicking here, and read about the archive project by clicking here. 

Continue reading after the jump to access my original review of “Hancock.”

From the Jonathan R. Lack Review Archives:
Originally published July 1st, 2008

2008 is the summer of the superhero.  There are Iron Men, there are Incredible Hulks, there are Dark Knights…and then there’s……Hancock.  Hancock, an alcoholic bum with superpowers.  The trailers informed us that the film would center on Hancock, hated by the public, re-shaping his image with the help of a down on his luck PR agent.  It’s a very original premise, and especially poignant given the slew of superhero flicks this summer.  What’s more, you’ve got Will Smith, the undisputed king of the summer blockbuster (or the winter blockbuster, or the mid-spring blockbuster) portraying him. 

How could it go wrong?  I mean, how on Earth could that premise go wrong?

Well, the makers of Hancock figure out how.  Lure audiences in with a first half that lives up to every promise the premise makes, and then throw a curveball that completely changes the game and abandons everything that made the film so original.

But let’s start with what’s good in this film…and there’s a lot to love.  The film opens with a hilarious action sequence in which a drunk Hancock stops some bad guys on the highway.  He breaks threw a giant sign, which destroys part of the street and flips a few cop cars upside down.  After he gets in the car with the bad guys, he lifts the car up and impales it on a flagpole.  News reports say he caused 9 million dollars worth of damage.  Does Hancock care?  Not a chance.  It’s a great opening that tells us the tone of the film will be firmly rooted in twisted hilarity, grounded by another home-run performance by Will Smith.

In the next action sequence, Hancock rescues PR agent Ray Embrey, who is so grateful to Hancock that he decides to help Hancock become a better man and a beloved superhero.

The first hour or so of the film is solid gold.  It takes the premise of hated superhero and runs wild with it.  It’s laugh-a-minute material that makes for immensely entertaining summer fare.  There’s an underlying heart to it all that really makes the first hour a winner.  While Will Smith turns in another great (and expected) lead-performance, it’s Jason Bateman who steals the show.  He plays PR agent Ray Embrey, a good guy who just wants to help the world, and his optimism is infectious.  Bateman was terrific in last year’s comedy Juno and he’s in top form here.  What’s more, he and Smith have a great chemistry that is the driving force for the film.  For the first hour or so, it’s all about these two and Embrey’s efforts to rehabilitate Hancock, which involves sending the superhero to jail.

If only they had continued focusing on this relationship.

After Hancock gets out of prison, he saves a group of hostages from a robber, and starts being loved by the public.  Shortly after this, the film falls apart.  When I say ‘falls apart,’ I don’t mean that the film simply loses focus or gets bored with its premise, as many films like this do.  By ‘falls apart,’ I mean that it feels as though the last third of the script suddenly went missing, the screenwriter suffered a fatal heart attack, and someone with no knowledge about the first two thirds of the script was brought in to rewrite the lost pages.  Perhaps that sounds implausible, but if you see the film, it suddenly sounds perfectly reasonable.

A twist is introduced involving Ray’s wife, Mary, played by Charlize Theron.  Without any warning, the focus of the film switches to the previously non-existent relationship between Hancock and Mary, who has information about his past.  While it doesn’t help that Smith and Theron have absolutely zero on-screen chemistry, the real killer here is the writing. 

See, the filmmakers thought it necessary to give Hancock a backstory.  Most superheroes have very simple back-stories; for instance, Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider and developed spider powers.  Bruce Banner was involved in a gamma radiation accident and became the Hulk.  All of our favorite superheroes boast incredibly simplistic origins; why?  So you can spend more time examining the character and having that character kick ass than wasting time telling an origin.

Instead of giving Hancock a simple back-story like every great superhero, the writers see fit to shove down our throats an immensely complicated, gratingly stupid and never adequately explained back-story that completely changes the whole film.  The last half hour feels like something out of a different movie, as if the filmmakers tacked on half an hour from another movie with the same actors and tried to pass it off as one film. 

Alright…I could rant all day with analogies about what the film feels like, but let’s be constructive.  It’s really hard to review this without spoiling the film, but suffice to say, the last half hour feels like really awful comic-book fan fiction.  It all centers around Hancock’s origin, which as I said above, is needlessly complicated and never adequately explained.  The relationship between Ray and Hancock, which provides the comic center and heart of the picture, is abandoned.  Jokes about Hancock’s gruff nature are also abandoned.  Humor in general is abandoned.  The last half hour is grim, dark, and tragic, and never fun nor funny. 

The first hour is fun because of how it satirizes the conventions of the modern superhero film, and last half hour completely abandons this.  What Hancock really needed was a villain he could face to test his rehabilitation; someone like Lex Luthor from Superman.  The first Superman film doesn’t introduce the villain until about an hour in, and the same could have gone true for Hancock.  We are introduced to the character, he solves his problem, he saves the city.  That should have been the formula.  Would it have been kind of predictable?  Yeah.  But Iron Man, one of the year’s best films, was also predictable.  This served the film immensely, and would have done the same for Hancock.

By the time the climax begins at the hospital, I wanted to leave the theater.  It was painful to watch.  Every element that made the first hour so fun was dumped and replaced with garbage.  Attached to Hancock is the trailer for Quantum of Solace, the new James Bond film.  I wish the projector had broke 1 hour into Hancock, and the theater would have instead shown us a continuous reel of this trailer. 

If abandoning all that was good in the picture wasn’t enough, I also must complain about the cinematography, which is simply awful from beginning to end.  The camera is shaky and uses amateurish zoom-ins and angles, much like a documentary or the Jason Bourne films.  A superhero film doesn’t need this; it worked for Bourne, but not for Hancock.  But the filmmakers take it a step further by having every shot not contained in an action sequence be an extreme close-up of the face of the person who is talking. 

The camera is aimed so close to the actors face’s at all times that, not only do we rarely see a full-bodied person, but you end up feeling claustrophobic.  The film is shot in 2.35:1, a very wide aspect ratio.  A face does not fit into this ratio very well, and the image becomes very, very crowded.  In most scenes, you can’t tell where the scene is taking place.  All you see is faces.  No background, just faces.  Even in the terrific first hour of the film, this is a serious problem that makes the movie unappealing to look at.

But let’s end on a positive note.  The first hour is great; the writing is solid with strong characterization and the acting is terrific.  Will Smith once again demonstrates why he’s the biggest box-office draw in Hollywood, and Jason Bateman steals the show.  Until the completely retarded twist that takes place around the one-hour mark, this is great summer entertainment.  Sadly, because of this last half hour, there’s no way I can recommend this film.  When you’re paying 10 bucks for a ticket, and getting only one hour of solid material, it’s just not worth it.  I would, however, recommend renting the film when it hits DVD; not only will you get more bang for your buck, but those extreme close ups won’t be so intrusive on the small screen.

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