Despite the inexplicable pile on that early critics have engaged in, Peter Berg’s “Hancock” is a truly engaging and emotionally compelling character drama that happens to be disguised as a broad superhero satire. It is not a perfect film and the third act seems a little rushed (it’s no secret that it was cut from 115 minutes to 95 minutes), but this is a real movie, not an assembly-line factory confection.
There is strong acting from all parties, including Will Smith, Jason Bateman, and Charlize Theron. In particular, Jason Bateman as Ray takes a character that could have been a stock cardboard cut-out, a sounding board at which the plot unfolds, and he makes him into a sympathetic flesh and blood human being. Ray’s attempts to convince corporations to engage in wholesale charity is played for real, and his explanation of how he met his wife is both touching and surprisingly honest. A lesser movie would have used his decency and his desire to do good as a punchline, but this movie takes it very seriously, and its that desire that drives the movie in ways both expected and unexpected.
Will Smith doesn’t shy away from making the character not only unlikable, but also desperately sad and confused. He does great deeds and thinks that should be enough, and he doesn’t understand why he should have to be polite and humble when he’s saving lives (a subtle critique of the current issues that America has with the rest of the world?). But, like Bateman, he has an inherent want to help people and do good, and that drives him to fight crime even when the public hates him for it. For reasons that I won’t reveal, Hancock believes that he is deserving of his scorn and thus takes no steps to correct it.
Much has been said of the third-act change. It is not a twist per se, as it’s obviously telegraphed from the opening scenes. But it is a progression of story and that may be what is jolting the critics. It is rare in these days for mainstream movies to have stories that gradually unfold throughout all three acts. Usually, 90% of the story is told in the first act and the rest of pay-off. Not “Hancock,” it has a story, it has a plot, and it’s a plot that unfolds over the entire movie. Even in the final scenes, we are still seeing character development and still learning new things about the world that we have been dropped into. The climax contains action, but it is brutal, unglamorous, emotionally compelling action. The climactic violence is merely a means to allow character choices to be made and relationships to strengthen, weaken, or change. In fact, all of the action scenes are driven by the story and character actions and they all serve important story elements.
How refreshing that Sony chose to withhold this information, to allow moviegoers to actually be surprised for once. The trailers reveal only the first act and bits of the second act, and in that sense the trailers are accurate. The first act is very funny and the second act does some fun things with the idea of a superhero rehabilitating himself (not enough, and I’d wager that stuff was cut from this section). The climax of the second act also has a great dialogue scene with the three leads that is revealing and uncommonly well-written for this genre (this is where Bateman’s story of meeting Theron comes in). And even the third-act has an emotional oomph that builds to an absolutely lovely coda just before the credits role.
How distressing that Sony seems to be getting attacked for not revealing the entire film in a three-minute advertisement. It’s as if critics are taken aback at actually not knowing where the story was going. God forbid we actually not know every plot point before we see the movie. Sony should be commended for withholding plot points in the marketing. And, apparent tinkering aside, they should be commended for financing this $150 million tent-poler and allowing Peter Berg to make a film that is very much a distinct point of view and actually has a brain. It’s not a perfect film, and I can’t wait to see an extended version, but “Hancock” is far better than the critical buzz and is a completely compelling motion picture.