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Smith's Rules

Does 'Hancock' deliver?

12:00 AM, Jul 2, 2008 • By SONNY BUNCH
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JUDGING BY BOX office hauls alone, Will Smith is the last movie star on the planet. By movie star, I don't mean "able to generate headlines" or "most-recognized," simply that Smith can open any genre of movie and look good doing it. His last seven films have all grossed over $100 million, and have ranged stylistically from a science fiction comedy (Men in Black II) to a family drama (Pursuit of Happyness) to an action adventurer (Bad Boys II) to an animated flick (Shark Tale). When Smith's new release Hancock hits theaters this July Fourth weekend, it will almost certainly eclipse the $100 million mark in the first five days. This will give him eight straight $100 million flicks, an unprecedented feat.

Hancock, though muddled, is an artistic success as well as a surefire commercial hit. Eschewing the standard superhero movie formula, Hancock thrusts us into the middle of the action instead of dealing with time-consuming origin story filler. The audience has no idea where the drunken superhero Hancock (Smith) comes from, a blindspot they share with Los Angeles's denizens--and Hancock himself.

A lonely amnesiac with god-like powers, Hancock spends most of his day downing 1.75-liter handles of liquor and smashing up the city in a drunken fog while rescuing its citizens from heavily armed crooks. All that changes when Hancock saves the life of PR man Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman). Embrey convinces the much-maligned superhero to surrender to the authorities and serve some time in prison in order to convince the city just how necessary he is.

It's unclear how audiences will react to the darker, edgier character Smith plays in this movie. Though he clearly has good intentions, Smith spends the first act of the movie smashing up highways, tossing children into the stratosphere, and causing all manner of mayhem, all the while informing the people he has inconvenienced just how little he cares about their ant-like, insignificant lives. Though these sequences strike a slightly discordant note--if Hancock really didn't care about the people he protects, why would he continue to do so?--the result is powerful. Hancock is the good guy you hate to love.

The film goes off the rails as the third act begins, however, when we learn about the eponymous character's true origin. I won't spoil it for you here, but it makes little sense, adds an unnecessary subplot or three, and all-in-all detracts from the film. What it doesn't do, however, is slow down the plot: That's a problem. Critics don't often complain about a film being too short; almost every movie you see at the multiplex could be trimmed by a solid quarter hour.

But Hancock clocks in at less than an hour and a half of screen time. The official running time is 92 minutes, sure, but that includes the requisite 5-7 minutes of credits. It's simply not enough time to explore all of the trials and tribulations surrounding Embrey, Hancock, and the mysterious superhero's secret origins. Some of the trims were certainly studio mandated--Hancock had to go through several cuts in order to get the desired PG-13 rating from the MPAA, and new footage was being shot as late as last month, never a good sign for a big budget studio flick like this one. (For more on the picture's troubles, check out this piece by Reed Tucker in the New York Post.)

All that aside, the movie works on a number of different levels. The performances are all superb, the direction by Peter Berg is handled with aplomb (no surprise to anyone who's seen his previous works, The Kingdom and Friday Night Lights), and the writing, though spotty, is truly unique. But we won't know how great this movie could have been until the inevitable unrated director's cut hits DVD shelves sometime next year.

Sonny Bunch is assistant editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.