Hancock: A Loutish Superhero Saves the Day

Picture a superhero whose enemy isn’t an octopus man or a giant spider but political correctness and you’ll have some idea of the cleverness that animates Hancock, a hip-hop superdude for our time.

Hancock, which stars Will Smith as a lazy, alcoholic, foul-mouthed lout who happens to fly, be impervious to bullets, and save lives when he can be bothered, essentially asks: what if Redd Foxx grew up on Krypton? (The irascible Foxx was a sort of black Archie Bunker on Sanford and Son, a 70s TV show whose theme song is deployed in a typically bawdy prison scene in this movie).

Watching Smith edge away from his clean-cut image and play a Rotten Prince makes the first half of Hancock consistently funny, although in its second half, a plot twist (which I won’t reveal or even hint at) takes the movie in an entirely different direction that isn’t completely satisfying, although it is interesting.

At the start, Hancock is a drunk who sleeps on benches in L.A. When a little kid arrives Jimmy Olsen-ishly to tell him about bad guys on the prowl, he takes in the information and makes it clear that the child is cramping his style. "Whachoo want? A cookie?" he asks.

Then Hancock flies off to capture the miscreants (every time he takes off or lands, he wrecks the street around him), picking up their car and slamming it into a skyscraper, with almost complete disregard for property. Hancock doesn’t appear to be licensed or insured to practice superheroism.

In addition to being the world’s leading cause of collateral damage, Hancock isn’t a very nice man. After meeting Ray, a PR consultant (Jason Bateman) who suggests that he needs a makeover, a superhero costume, and better relationships with the media, Hancock takes a look at what other super-powered folk are wearing. "What do you think of this one?" asks the PR man, holding up the cover of a comic book. "Homo," is Hancock’s verdict. Somebody lock this guy up and retrain him.

Locking Hancock up is exactly what society decides to do, and in this film -- directed by Peter Berg, who also made last fall’s film The Kingdom, about Americans and Arabs working together to foil terrorists in the Middle East -- the title character is the enemy of the people. He has a few hundred lawsuits pending against him for all of the stuff he’s wrecked.

Even when he saves Ray’s life, people complain that he did it the wrong way. Ray thinks that’s crazy: Hancock is the barrier between decent folk and the bad guys, and though he isn’t perfect, the price we collectively pay for his services is more than reasonable.

The film is a witty defense of America as a rude, sometimes blundering but ultimately invaluable and benevolent force, although Berg, who took a lot of heat (mainly for being infuriatingly patriotic) for The Kingdom, doesn’t press the message so hard that everyone is going to notice it. And anyway, he seems to drop it in the second half.

Not for nothing does Hancock share his name with one of the fiercest patriots in American history; the movie also takes pain to establish the eagle (a frequently seen image) as Hancock’s symbol, even at the beginning when it’s merely a patch on his ratty ski cap. "I’m the only one of my kind," Hancock complains, by virtue of explaining his difficulties as the world’s only superpower. He has trouble getting along with others.

What others? How about the French? When Ray’s son is harassed by a French boy, Ray’s wife (Charlize Theron) points out that there is much more to the story. The bullying French kid — one of the best laughs the movie gets is when it simply tells us that the little punk is named "Michel" — is having a tough time at home, you see.

Maybe so, but his is the kind of excuse-making that Hancock can’t work up much patience for, and when he is made to endure group therapy and explore his feelings the mood is kind of dreary, kind of comical and completely pointless — much like a U.N. meeting.

Hancock

Directed by Peter Berg

Starring: Will Smith, Charlize Theron, Jason Bateman

3 stars/ 4

92 minutes/Rated PG-13