Review: An odd kind of hero

I’d like to see a sequel to “Hancock.” Here’s a movie filled with bright ideas, crammed uncomfortably into a story burdened by confusing and often contradictory exposition. It begins as a comedy and ends rather unexpectedly with a flourish of melodrama, but it’s never dull.

Messy? Very, but not without the kind of promise a more clearheaded sequel might realize.

Will Smith has boldly predicted that it will be his biggest film to date, but I’m not so sure. He’s given stronger performances in better movies — “Men in Black” and “I Am Legend” come to mind — but perhaps during a summer filled with familiar superheroes, audiences might spring for a fresh alternative: Hancock, a boozed-up, super-strong crime fighter exorcising his demons all too publicly in the streets of Los Angeles.

We know that Hancock has demons because he’s never without a bottle, though he never seems drunk so much as surly. He sports a perpetual 7 o’clock shadow; and he curses in front of children.

Those hoping for a darker portrayal of a hero in the grip of alcoholism (which might have given the superhuman character an intriguingly human vulnerability) would do better to follow the “Iron Man” saga.

As it is, Hancock’s boorishness is played mostly for laughs, some of them dubious. After carelessly tossing an SUV atop the Capitol Records Building, he threatens to beat up a disapproving old lady. (Ho, ho, ho.)

Elsewhere, the comedy is sharper, but the tone remains the same. “Hancock” begins not as a character study or even a plausible adventure as much as a slapstick farce in which Smith, regrettably, is called upon to cram one man’s head up another man’s … well, you get the idea.

Hancock is probably the last guy on Earth who’d agree to an image makeover, but he sure could use one. Enter PR guru Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), who believes his lifelong dream of saving the world is intertwined with the fate of its most notorious lush.

Civility proves a tough lesson to learn for a man accustomed to liquid lunches and occasional dust-ups with children, but Hancock reluctantly goes along with the plan. Even the most cantankerous heroes crave acceptance, it seems.

“Hancock” is filled with unexpected twists. Some work, while others feel arbitrary and clumsily conceived. Early on, the movie establishes itself as an aggressively silly genre satire in the same vein as “My Super Ex-Girlfriend,” but it ends, unconvincingly, as what aspires to be drama.

Why, after an hour of pratfalls, try to reinvent Hancock as a somber second coming of the Caped Crusader? I like the idea of a disgraced superhero struggling to rehabilitate his image.

It’s a terrific premise that lends itself to either comedy or drama, but “Hancock” wants to have it both ways. In the end, it’s a movie ripe with possibility, but whose reach far exceeds its grasp.

CREDITS

Hancock (2 and a half stars)

Starring Will Smith, Charlize Theron, Jason Bateman, Jae Head, Eddie Marsan

Written by Vincent Ngo, Vince Gilligan

Directed by Peter Berg

Rated PG-13

Running time 1 hour 32 minutes

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