The Sixth Sense, starring Bruce Willis as a dead man, was M. Night Shyamalan's breakthrough, but its followup, Unbreakable, starring Bruce Willis as the walking dead reborn as a superhero, was the filmmaker's masterpiece. It remains the most quietly influential of all recent superhero movies, the unacknowledged template for directors looking to make the indestructible vulnerable, the enormously heroic smaller than life.
There are hints of that greatness buried deep within Hancock, a superhero movie starring a hero who doesn't want the job. As the unbreakable title character, Will Smith is a Man of Steel who'd rather melt into a puddle of cheap booze. Like Willis's David Dunn, John Hancock knows he has a calling — he'd just rather not pick up. Both men mope and wander and kvetch till someone comes along to shake them out of their stupor and remind them that they are, in fact, quite super.
Which isn't to suggest that Hancock is a worthy heir to Unbreakable, not by a giant leap in a single bound. It's too silly and too slight to merit such praise, especially as it trudges through its first third with ho-hum jokes tethered to rinky-dink special effects.
But slowly and clumsily, Hancock lurches toward greatness. Its redemption occurs long after the film has spent scene after scene proving that Hancock is an alcoholic and an asshole: cruel to children, criminal toward criminals and a menace to Los Angeles.
Even after he meets his redeemer — Jason Bateman as Ray Embrey, the first heroic public-relations man in the history of cinema — we're reminded over and over of Hancock's misguided, destructive, half-assed acts of heroism. The joke wears exhaustingly thin, and Hancock stalls. But finally, and so gradually that it may test your patience, the movie unspools its darkest and deepest-felt secrets — the origin story that's really never fully revealed, accompanied by Hancock's admission that he's a son of a bitch because he can't remember being anything but alone, unloved, unwanted.
Hancock is meant to be a hero; it's his purpose. Only he doesn't know why and he doesn't know how. Neither, it seems, do director Peter Berg and writers Vince Gilligan and Vincent Ngo. All seem unsure of how to transition the title character from bum to superman, and they rely too heavily on broad comedy's shove or overheated action's kick.
Fact is, Hancock's more Ray's heroic journey than its title character's. Bateman, who's affable and genuine whenever he's on screen, plays nothing more than an everyday do-gooder whose Batmobile is a piece-of-shit Volvo and whose sidekicks are a wife with a long neck and a wary eye and a son (Jae Head) who just wants to believe. Bateman and Smith make a dynamic duo; Smith, whose widescreen sincerity remains his greatest asset, beautifully communicates the transition from shithead to champion.
Last week on The Colbert Report, Smith proclaimed Hancock as nothing more than another summer superhero movie, which is its biggest flaw: It doesn't take itself as seriously as it should, and undercuts a final act that should have and so could have packed a mighty emotional wallop. Noted a colleague after a preview screening: "Here's a superhero movie that could have used more pretension."
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