Imagine that Superman was a foul-mouthed, angry drunk, and that he dressed like a homeless bum, made rude passes at women in the street and when he went flying off to foil criminals, he created so much collateral damage with his reckless heroics that the public reviled him as a menace to society. That, in a nutshell, is the premise of "Hancock," Will Smith's attempt to reinvent the superhero genre. There's lots of potential there, though the question arises whether the concept is more suitable to a five-minute "Saturday Night Live" skit than to a feature film.
At first, "Hancock" has the makings of rich satire. The bulletproof, invincible but mysteriously angry Hancock saves the life of idealistic PR man Ray Embry (Jason Bateman), who vows to return the favor by giving the unpopular crime-buster an image makeover. Detox, a course in anger management and a voluntary stint in jail are prescribed, but Hancock draws the line at wearing the sleek new superhero suit his flack gives him (too "homo"). Smith doesn't try to make Hancock likeable, because he and the filmmakers know we'll like him anyway—he's Will Smith, the most popular movie star in the world. The audience chuckles indulgently at his belligerent one-liners, knowing perfectly well that Hancock won't stay a bad guy for long.
The first half of the movie, directed by Peter Berg ("Friday Night Lights") from a screenplay credited to Vy Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan (but worked on by many hands), keeps your hopes up, even though it never quite jells. The storytelling rhythm seems rushed, and Berg's fondness for giant close-ups, jittery verité camerawork and nervous cross-cutting tries to impose a patina of hard-nosed realism on a conceit that grows more fanciful and convoluted as it goes. Still, Bateman and Smith, both of whom possess near-infallible instincts for comic timing, make a good odd-couple team, and Charlize Theron, looking great and not trying to win an Oscar, is appealing as Bateman's strangely tense wife—her aversion to Hancock seems oddly virulent, suggesting an attraction she doesn't want to acknowledge.
Then, nearly an hour into this misshapen 90-minute entertainment, "Hancock" takes a disastrous left turn, abandoning all its satirical setups, and all sense. I won't play spoiler and reveal the plot twist that sends the movie into its nosedive, but it reeks of desperation. It's as if an entire new movie starts up; unfortunately, it's not the one we want to see. We learn far too much about Hancock's back story—how he came to be the damaged superhero he is—as the film frantically changes its rules from scene to tonally jarring scene, ending with a chaotically inept action sequence and a grandiose Liebestod with Wagnerian pretensions. Oy, what a mess!
The movie may prove to be a hit—when was the last time a Will Smith movie wasn't?—but it feels like a wasted opportunity. The superhero genre screams for a makeover, or at least a smart deconstruction, but "Hancock" isn't that movie. It just ups the foolishness ante.