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I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’ve been watching the trailers for Hancock for ages now. Over and over again in theaters, on TV and online I’ve seen the title character— a perpetually pissed-off superhero dressed to the nines in the very best homeless chic—mouth off to innocent civilians, toss a little kid miles into the air and hurl a beached whale back into the ocean, knocking over a sailboat in the process. This stuff is supposed to be funny (and it is…the first ten times anyway) for two reasons: 1) Hancock is basically Superman with a wicked hangover and 2) He’s played by Will Smith a.k.a. The Nicest Guy in Hollywood. That’s right, after years of playing virtuous heroes, the Fresh Prince is trying to dirty his onscreen image a bit. As these kinds of career reinventions go, Smith’s transformation in Hancock isn’t quite as extreme as, say, Denzel Washington in Training Day or Michael Chiklis in The Shield, but you gotta give the guy credit for working so hard at being bad.

It’s just a shame that the movie lets him down. Directed by Peter Berg and penned by Vy Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan, Hancock has some terrific ideas at its core—it just can’t realize them onscreen. The project’s troubled production history, which was exhaustively chronicled in a New York Times piece a few months ago, no doubt has a lot to do with this. Originally conceived by Ngo as a super-dark superhero drama entitled Tonight He Comes, the film was set to be directed by Michael Mann, who eventually opted out and the script passed through the hands of several filmmakers until it ended up with Berg.

Meanwhile, former X-Files staffer Gilligan came onboard to do some rewrites and the new script found its way to Akiva “Batman & Robin” Goldsman, who signed onto produce and almost certainly contributed some uncredited script revisions as well. Goldsman was also responsible for getting Smith involved and the star had some of his own ideas he wanted incorporated into the final product. Changes were still being made during shooting and in the editing room—in fact, early test screening reports indicated that the film was much longer than the 92-minute version arriving in theaters today. We’ll have to wait until the special-edition DVD to see what exactly was chopped out, but I’m fairly certain that those excised scenes would have gone a long way towards clearing up some crucial questions I have about the characters, the world they inhabit and the film’s big plot twist.

Ah yes, the plot twist. Betcha you didn’t think you’d be getting one of those in this movie. Kudos to the Sony marketing team for keeping this secret so well hidden even as they drown the airwaves in Hancock ads. I’m not about to spoil things either, but I will say that the twist is a very interesting development that sends Hancock into unexpected territory for a comic-book movie. Just to backtrack a bit, the first half of the story involves a virtuous PR guy Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), who makes it his mission to reform Hancock’s public image, much to the displeasure of his Hancock-hating wife Mary (Charlize Theron). To that end, he convinces his client to serve jail time as a good faith gesture to the residents of Los Angeles, his primary base of operations. While in lock-up, Hancock undergoes an attitude adjustment and emerges from prison more prepared to protect and serve the public.

It’s at this point that the movie plays its ace in the hole and the revelation opens up a tantalizing history for a seemingly one-dimensional hero. Hancock’s biggest sin is that it doesn’t take full advantage of the possibilities allowed by this plot development. One can only imagine what a skilled comic-book writer like Alan Moore or Brian Michael Bendis would have taken the story (actually, we don’t have to imagine anything—both of those writers already did variations on it in Miracleman and Powers respectively); Hancock’s masterminds just allow it to lie there onscreen. Their negligence robs the movie of any emotional impact and Smith’s performance of any internal consistency. Although the star does his best to keep up with the film’s constantly shifting tone, he can’t fill in the narrative gaps created in the editing room. Hancock is an almost good movie, but when it comes to being a superhero, “almost” isn’t good enough.

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