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Man of Bent Steel

A hard-living superhero (Will Smith) who has fallen out of favor with the public attempts to repair his image.Showtimes Video by Columbia Pictures

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By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 2, 2008

"Hancock" sounds like a signature big Will Smith summer movie, something written large for popular tastes, in the same category as the star's many previous hits. He plays a superhero assisted in the miraculous by cutting-edge special effects and by the specialest effect of them all, Charlize Theron, in this brisk light-comedy outing tailor-made for forgetting the oppression of the heat, the bugs, the upward surge of the gallon, and four more months of presidential campaign politics.

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But it turns out to be one of the strangest freak shows to arrive since the mermaid, the monkey-faced boy and Rip the wonder peanut. In fact, the most powerful amusement it generates is trying to figure out what thinking went behind it, what executive leap of faith justified its reportedly $150 million budget.

The script reportedly floated around Hollywood for years, brilliant yet so subversive it was considered all but unmakable. It was about a superhero who was also a big fat jerk. It was meant, one supposes, as a dark comedy, a purgative sendup of the formulaic square-jawed, empty-eyed man-of-steel stereotype.

The problem is that director Peter Berg ("Friday Night Lights," "The Kingdom"), aided and abetted by Smith and Theron and third banana Jason Bateman (never trust a man named after two famous movie serial killers), seem to have made it literally, not realizing its out-of-whack tonalities and grotesque plot twists were meant to be played for laughs.

It begins, promisingly enough, with Hancock (Smith) awaking on a park bench in Los Angeles, another grizzled, soused, unwashed member of that city's legion of homeless. He's got the frayed knit cap, the three-day beard, the floppy, ill-fitting, stunk-up clothes. He blinks, rubs his eyes, and hears a little boy call him an unpleasant, if true, name. Then he shoots skyward like an Atlas headed for Moscow, but faster than a ballistic missile, able to leap tall condos in a single burp, more powerful than a speeding Hummer. Quickly he diverts to a law enforcement crisis, a running gunfight on the freeway. Like Mighty Mouse, he's there to save the day. He saves it with a drunk's finesse: that is, sloppily, clumsily, destructively. Rather than being feted for his accomplishment, he re-confirms that Angelenos have tired of his man-of-steel thing, so he quickly finds relief in alcohol and the nearest park bench.

So what is a despised superhero to do? Maybe change his clothes once in a while or brush his teeth with something other than a bottle with a worm in it? But of course the true answer is: Hire a PR man. Thus the movie contrives, through rickety plotting, to put him into position to save a PR man about to get turned to creamed spinach by a commuter train; he does this, typically, by sundering the locomotive and piling up boxcars for miles. But the PR guy -- Bateman -- realizes that under the jerklike exterior of Hancock, there lurks . . . another jerk. So he contrives a campaign to revitalize the Hancock image and restore him to the love and affection he clearly doesn't deserve.

Up to this point, the movie had an extremely interesting subtext going for it. It seemed to be an inquiry into the fate in society of the great black superstar jock. Think Kobe, think Shaq, think LeBron, think Michael. These guys are so phenomenally gifted they seem to defy not just gravity and physics but also cause and effect, death, taxes and the rule on no free lunch. But . . . at the same time, they are marginalized, freakified, exiled, dehumanized, exploited, objectified and generally turned into product. That can't be fun and the wages of such treatment on the soul has never been directly treated in a movie.

So as I say: It's kind of unusual, it's kind of amusing (I enjoyed Smith's subversive anger at "the little people" and his hunger for the cure-all brown beverage), and then the movie takes the strangest turn in quite possibly movie history, which I will not disclose. It's as if the screenwriters were working in their bungalow one day, stuck on a plot point, and one said to the other, "What if --" and the other said, "No way," and the first said, "Okay, genius, you come up with something better!" and genius never did.

The movie changes course, tone, concern, story issue, everything so abruptly and never recovers as it goes on to become a very strange thing. But of course they never explain it. That may be the most insane part, the fact that no theory is ever broached by which the oddness and what follows is fit into any kind of context. I suppose the term I'm looking for is "creation myth," which "Hancock" boldly lacks.

Among other difficulties, the movie has not bothered to create any real villains for Hancock to fight, and so late in the going it comes up with a stopgap set of bad guys who unleash violence upon Hancock and those he cares about. But since they're human and he's super, where's the suspense supposed to be? And another thing: Parents seeing the PG-13 rating will be stunned to discover how violent the picture is and how the violence is not in the stylizations of the superhero movie, but mean, gun-driven violence, with tracer bullets, impact wounds, blood puddles. One sequence, involving a bank robbery, seems clearly influenced by the famous North Hollywood gunfight of 1997 in which heavily armed felons with automatic weapons went to town against the LAPD.

Smith is good, as usual, but hardly memorable. Theron pays the role of Bateman's unimpressed wife with a kind of edgy, street-smart wariness. She tends not to look anyone in the eye, but rather tilts her face and squints at people on an angle, as if she's measuring them for a stainless-steel overcoat. She's in her "tough gal" mode, fleshy and mottled. And none of this is helped by Berg's trademark in-your-face camera work, where the cinematographer seems to be boxing the actors, not filming them, feinting, dipping, circling, jiggling. The cinéma vérité stylings give the film a kind of fraudulent documentary feel, meant to connote "real," "raw" emotions as distinct from the canned emotions of stereotypical Hollywood fare, which this is, to its audience's bafflement, definitely not.

In the end, "Hancock" is indigestible. It's a movie with an identity crisis that seems to offer one gentle pleasure but instead offers a harsher experience by far. It's very, very strange.

Hancock (82 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action, strong violence and language.

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