Will Smith rivals Meryl Streep for acting chutzpah; he may not equal America’s duse in chops, but he’s the only star since Tom Cruise to have studios stake billions that audiences will flock to see him act lonely or assholish. This very funny and very smart summer blockbuster will only amp him up for his next impossible casting stunt—at this point, he could star in a remake of Sophie’s Choice and still top the box office.
As John Hancock, the superhero with a heart of Goldschläger, Smith is introduced passed out on a park bench with a stockpile of Seagram’s 7. But he seems too noble to slum it up. His stubble’s so groomed it looks like it could slide right off his scowling face and the Ludacris track that booms when he blasts off to settle a highway chase feels totally last century. (As does co-writers Vy Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan’s vision of LA as a criminal cesspool where thugs regularly shoot up semi-automatics on the freeway and strap bombs on hostages during bank robberies.)
Hancock is the scion and scourge of Southern California. He’s a resentful slacker who can’t save the day without totaling up millions in destruction: Cars wind up impaled on the Capital Records needle, skyscrapers are run through like Swiss cheese, and he appears to be the sole cause of potholes as he can’t be bothered to fly with grace. When he saves PR exec Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) from being stuck on a railroad crossing, Hancock doesn’t simply move his car—he derails the train and is booed by bystanders until he snaps and calls one a bitch. Clearly, he needs Bateman’s services. Sample advice: “Use the door, compliment the cops, do not land on a Mercedes.”
The dynamic between the sullen Smith and sincere Bateman may be the best thing in the Peter Berg’s movie, but it’s a tough call because the whole popcorn fest is flat-out fantastic. Berg shoots his actors and their homes in tight close-ups as though searching for the person at the core. He pulls back for vigorous action sequences that thankfully haven’t been edited to death, but it’s the relationships that carry the story. Smith underplays his drunkard of justice with the withdrawn self-preservation of a foster child. A sequence when he reluctantly joins an alcohol and anger management group isn’t played for either cheap tears or laughs; later, when Hancock’s cheered by Angelenos for the first time, he’s so surprised he can’t do anything but nod tersely and shield himself with sunglasses.
Charlize Theron and Jae Head as Bateman’s wife and child are strong in their crucial parts. We feel rushed when all the strands are brought together for the final battle—I could happily spend another 30 minutes watching Bateman bite his nails seeing Hancock on the news like a coach praying his quarterback completes a perfect Hail Mary pass (“Don’t break the building, don’t break the building” he chants.) But though the closing fight suffers from a too trifling villain (Eddie Marsan), Berg’s hooked us on Hancock’s hushed inner workings—the anger and guilt that forged him, the grudging hope that pushes him forward, and like all great superheros, the weakness that elevates him to a legend.