His latest movie, “Hancock,” demonstrates why Will Smith gets paid the big bucks.
The guy has owned Fourth of July weekends with huge debuts for some passable but not-so-great movies (“Independence Day,” “Men in Black II”), and he’ll likely do it again with this foul-mouthed-misanthrope-as-superhero flick.
“Hancock” has a crisp, entertaining set-up — Smith as a superhero who hates everyone and is hated in turn for the chaos he causes. With nowhere to go after that, the filmmakers let the story devolve into a lame variation of the very action genre they aimed to flip on its head.
But none of that matters. It’s Will Smith and it’s another passable movie, largely because he IS Will Smith.
Los Angeles may loathe their resident dude with superpowers, but Smith makes you love him, from the moment he wakes up on a bus bench, surly and hungover, and snaps crabbily at the little kid who roused him with the simple call to arms, “Hancock? Bad guys?”
Smith is the closest to a sure thing Hollywood has, the most likable, bankable star around. He can score hits out of a drama about a homeless dad (“The Pursuit of Happyness”) or an end-of-the-world saga released at Christmas time (“I Am Legend”) as easily as he can with standard summer fare such as “Bad Boys II.”
Because Smith inspires such kinship, you wish “Hancock” director Peter Berg and screenwriters Vy Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan had provided better material to let him show off his charm.
The movie opens with great promise, offering a solid action sequence blended with a nice character study. Smith’s Hancock, a man with no memory of his past before waking up with superpowers in a hospital 80 years earlier, grudgingly puts his gifts to work again, stopping thugs in a high-speed shootout with police.
He does it in typical Hancock style, with no regard for public safety and causing millions in property damage, to the point that authorities gripe publicly that he should go “help” some other city for a while.
A loner who looks and smells more like a homeless guy than a hero, Hancock goes about his job with a sense of drudgery. He can’t stand his life, he couldn’t care less about the people he saves and the idea of disguising his identity would be as laughable to him as actually dressing the part in a fancy superhero suit.
One day, he steps in and indifferently rescues earnest public-relations man Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), who surprises Hancock by actually thanking him, profusely.
Ray takes it on himself to do an image-makeover for Hancock, convincing him to try behaving like a hero so the public will see him that way. That means putting on a slick superhero costume instead of his usual rags and applying finesse to his powers, which include flying that usually ends with landings so hard they pulverize the pavement.
“Landing is your superhero handshake,” Ray tells Hancock. “Don’t come in too hot, don’t come in too boozy, and don’t land on the $100,000 Mercedes.”
Ray’s wife, Mary (Charlize Theron), thinks it’s all a bad idea, wishing Hancock would stay out of their lives.
“Hancock” seems to be charting fresh, smart territory amid Hollywood’s formulaic superhero tales. It’s amusing and touching to see the awkward kernels of humanity Smith’s character reveals as he tries to treat people with respect and decency, and people respond with the same toward him.
Then, the filmmakers cannot resist embracing the conventions they were tweaking. “Hancock” turns from a moody, darkly funny character piece trimmed out with a bit of engaging action and veers into a poor impersonation of a standard superhero movie.
Smith always is fun to watch, though he becomes less interesting as Hancock loses his rough edges and turns into your regular old hero at large. Bateman’s puppy-dog optimism is a fine complement, and Theron manages to maintain credibility in a sloppily concocted role that forces her to make schizophrenic character shifts.
The surprisingly brisk running time speaks to the scrawniness of the story and drama. “Hancock” is a fine idea that dead-ends in an empty alley, and all Berg and company can do is have a standard-issue costumed crusader come bounding back out to save the day.
Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and language. 92 minutes. Two stars out of four.