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False Trail

Stone me! What a life! Yes, once again it's a question of 'Another week, another superhero movie' - even I'm getting a bit bored with them and I have a comic collection running into four digits. What it must be like for normal people I can only imagine. Anyway, at least the superhero movie on offer this time is a bit of a break from the norm, in the shape of Peter Berg's distinctly off-beat Hancock.

This movie poses the brave question of what it would have been like had the famously melancholic comedy genius actually had superhuman powers... no, I'm sorry, I can't sustain a gag that weak for a whole column. Ahem. In this movie Will Smith plays Hancock (the name is derived from one of the American variants of 'John Smith', i.e. it's ostentatiously nondescript), an LA-based superhero. Hancock is fairly nondescript by nature as well as by name, at least as far as superguys go - he can fly, and juggle oil-rigs, and bullets bounce off him, and he's basically immortal - essentially he's a cross between Captain Marvel and one of Jack Kirby's Eternal characters. Of course, the rules of comic books dictate that the less exotic the superpowers, the more bizarre the character's personality must be, and it holds true here as well.

The big idea of this movie, which is all over the advertising, is that Hancock is a superhero but not actually a very nice person. There is a running gag where nearly everyone he encounters describes him using a word that rhymes with grasspole. He is misanthropic, barely competent, frequently drunk, and generally causes more carnage than whatever group of bad guys he is trying to apprehend. At one point he throws a child into the ionosphere for annoying him. (The producers try to make this sequence more palatable to a family audience by making the child in question French.) You would want to be saved by Godzilla rather than this guy.

But everything changes when he saves the life of nice-guy liberal PR consultant Ray (Jason Bateman). Ray, not without ulterior motives of his own, decides to help Hancock clean up his act and make the city love him as a superhero should be loved. Hancock is, of course, initially dubious, particularly as Ray's plan involves him doing jail time to atone for all the good deeds he's responsible for, but upon meeting Ray's strapping blonde wife Mary (Charlize Theron) finds himself becoming much more sympathetic to Ray's ideas...

Well, all this stuff is in the trailer and quite amusing it is too. But! Caveat viewer! What they haven't put in the trailer is anything from the second half of the movie, which goes off at a wild and unpredictable tangent and becomes an entirely different sort of animal. This, actually, is a bit of an understatement, as Hancock's main problem is that it's extremely uncertain and unfocussed in terms of what it's actually about and what kind of film it really wants to be. Even in the opening section it veers between special-effects blockbuster comedy and rather more subtle (and, to be honest, less funny) material. As it goes on it includes broad farce, straight-faced superhero action (there's an extended battle sequence that's as accomplished as anything in a recent Spider-Man or Superman movie), personal drama, romance, satire... it's not actually unsuccessful at any of these things, but the tone of the film is still very uneven. Is it a parody of other superhero stories, as the trailer suggests? Is it a satire on modern celebrity culture? Is it about the conflict between liberal values and the realities of modern urban living? Is it about what it means to be human and the value of love? It tries to do all these things at different times without really exploring any of them properly.

Sadly, the fact that this isn't just a blockbuster comedy has apparently led Will Smith to believe he can possibly win an Oscar for it, and so he never really uses his undoubted skills as a comedian: he's just a bit too deadpan, if not in fact solemn, all the way through, which is a shame, because as a result the film is more about funny ideas than funny performances. On the other hand, Theron and Bateman give nicely-pitched performances, coping well with the changes of tone and mood. The film is genuinely amusing when it wants to be, even if some of the later material isn't quite as effective as the film-makers probably hoped.

It's usually a bad idea to try to be all things to all people, and one could argue that this is exactly what the makers of Hancock have done, whether intentionally or not. This is a far from perfect film and one quite likely to disappoint anyone who just goes to see it because they liked the trailer. However, I'm not going to knock a film just because it's ambitious and has more ideas than it knows what to do with, and that's exactly the sort of film Hancock is. One to see with an open mind, I think.

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