By Corey Birkhofer
Hancock, USA, 2008
Directed by Peter Berg
Will Smith is on fire: a big blockbuster nearly every year for as long as I can remember, and it doesn’t seem like he’s going to stop anytime soon. Now for any of you who follow his work, you’ll know that Smith has played the last-action-hero or beaten-down-nice-guy-against-the-rest-of-the-world role before: I, Robot (2004), I Am Legend (2007), The Pursuit of Happyness (2006). Personally, I have loved him in every one of these roles because there was always something unique about his character that compelled me to watch him succeed through all the struggles put before him.
Earlier this year when I finally had a chance to see Hancock, I have to say I felt more than a little giddy to see what Smith would bring to the role. To me, there’s something about Smith’s whole aura that just makes me want to watch him do what he does. He has a full range of emotions at his disposal, not to mention his consistency in picking interesting characters that have unbelievably difficult obstacles put before them.
On the surface of I, Robot, Smith is a detective bent on solving the murder of a leading scientist who was also his friend. Underneath the surface of this detective exterior is a character that hates robots. This is a problem for him in the overly robot-reliant society in which he lives, and it makes his struggle all the more difficult and, as such, compelling to watch. In I Am Legend, Smith is again the lone man (in this case, literally) trying to find the cure to a disease that has killed and/or mutated the remaining human population into vicious, zombie-like carnivores. Throughout the film, we see the protagonist’s clockwork routine that he has undoubtedly developed through near-death experiences fighting the once human, now zombie-like creatures that only come out at night. This routine is what has kept him alive, and the meticulousness of it is real and tangible, thus making him an interesting protagonist to watch succeed. In The Pursuit of Happyness (which was based on a true story), Smith plays a salesman trying to sell these ridiculously difficult to sell x-ray machines, all while his family is falling apart at the seams. Despite this, his strange knack for memorizing numbers and his insanely driven work ethic are character attributes that make him incredibly interesting to watch as he struggles to get what he wants. No surprise that this, too, was a film I loved. Now let me get to Hancock.
As I said above, Smith has been consistent in taking on roles in which one man faces the world alone. Amidst this struggle, there has also consistently been some unique attribute that made his characters interesting for me to watch. In the case of Hancock, he’s a modern-day super hero. The catch: he’s a reluctant to help, depressed, alcoholic and temperamental superhero. As we get more into the story, Hancock agrees to work with a PR agent who wants to clean up his unpopular image. This makes for some marginal comic moments for the first hour or so, but ultimately I was looking for that one special attribute about Hancock that made Smith take on this role, as with his films leading up to this point.
One major difference from his other recent films is that, in this case, the one special attribute that sets his character apart is not revealed right at the start of the story. This is the answer to the question of “How did Hancock become a superhero?” Now, with some more unique writing, I think the writers of Hancock could have figured out a way to show their cards earlier, instead of making the reason to watch the film to just find out the answer to this question. In the end, the answer to the question of why Hancock is a superhero is about as simple and contrived as can be: Hancock is a super hero because he is a god. Okay …
Now this may very well be a cheap shot at the creators of an otherwise enjoyable-to-watch and pretty well put-together film, but I felt like the god angle to explain Smith’s super powers was a cheap device used to lure me in as a viewer, instead of respecting my intelligence and either coming up with a better reason for Hancock’s powers or, at the very least, showing all the cards at the start of the film and constructing a more compelling narrative. Sitting here writing this, I literally imagined to myself the concept team for Hancock sitting around a big conference table asking themselves: “So how did Hancock get his super powers?” until one naive writer spouted out, “I know! What if we made him a god?” Easy answer, easy solution. And thus the keystone for Hancock’s plot was born.
Now, I don’t mind plot devices that service the story, but when the plot device is so elementary that a 10-year-old could have come up with it, I lose faith that the writers of today are even trying to push their stories to their limits. In a movie climate rife with remakes, rehashes, and sequels to remakes of rehashes, originality and taking new risks is a rare commodity and much appreciated. Hancock was a pretty well-received movie critically because of Will Smith standing behind it, but despite him choosing solid scripts these past few years, I just didn’t get why he decided to take on this two-dimensional role.
Contact the Author: CoreyBirkhofer@MoviesIDidntGet.com