Look up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Oh, for Pete's sake, it's Hancock. And he's drunk. Again.
Yes, Los Angeles's unreliable superhero is passed out on a city bench one minute and zooming intoxicated over the freeway to stop Uzi-toting gang-bangers the next. Before he almost kills them, he makes a blithe racist remark. It's like "Lethal Weapon" all over again, with one man doing the job of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.
The idea of a sloshed, misanthropic superhero is a good one. The idea of putting him in a comedy is even better. Having Will Smith play the hero? Genius. And maybe some future global blockbuster will find a way to bundle it all into a thrilling work of entertainment.
In the meantime, there's "Hancock." What does one say about a movie that wants laughs from a shot of one inmate's head up the derriere of another? Well, there's "ouch." But there's also "why?"
"Hancock," which has a batch of sneak previews tonight before opening everywhere tomorrow, proudly bills its main character as "not your average superhero." By "average" the filmmakers presumably mean he is not made of iron or teeming with gamma rays. In other words, he's not from the universe of Marvel Comics. If only.
M. Night Shyamalan's "Un breakable" managed to create an original superhero out of Bruce Willis, with painstaking wonder. Wonder is what's missing here. "Hancock" staggers to the screen from a lousy script that seems written by focus group rather than by Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan, the credited typists.
With his stubbled, wool-hat-and-shorts look, Hancock appears virtually homeless. His reputation is in the toilet, so cue the down-on-his-luck PR agent (a characteristically droll Jason Bateman) to cajole Hancock into an image rehab. Soon Hancock is voluntarily off to jail (for some stupid, sub-"Oz" business). Then, he's released when the LAPD calls. Smith puts on a tight black costume, goes lawfully stiff, and gives us an amusing flash of how Richard Pryor might have played RoboCop.
The movie quickly runs aground when it has to explain itself. A back story is invented that I'm not convinced the filmmakers entirely understand. It's easier and more fun to show Hancock launching an obnoxious 12-year-old bully into the clouds or whipping a whale into the ocean than to disclose where the power to do so has come from.
There's the additional headache of what Charlize Theron is doing here. She doesn't figure into much of the film's advertising, but she plays Bateman's wife and, for half her scenes, she's reduced to badly darting her eyes whenever Hancock is around. If this were a murder-mystery board game, I'd accuse Ms. Theron in the ballroom with the Oscar.
Once she arrives, all the obscene snap goes out of Smith, and everyone's behavior makes even less sense. As a courtesy I won't be terribly specific, but the movie suggests a rather incredible racial odyssey. It culminates with an intriguing Hollywood metaphor for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton's endless tussle for the Democratic nomination.
The makers of "Hancock" had an opportunity to write a cool ticket (movie, not presidential). But the film has a depressing lack of imagination. And having Smith play a superhero seems redundant, since for years his superpower involved making Hollywood lots of money on the Fourth of July.
"Hancock" probably won't disrupt the trend. Yet once the vulgar comedy dissipates, we're left with poorly photographed, bullet-riddled summer-action mayhem. The only thing drunker than Hancock is the editing and camerawork. Director Peter Berg ("Friday Night Lights," "The Kingdom") has a knack for movies with a bulldozing style. But he usually finds a way to balance the noise with either gags or solemnity. This time his filmmaking is as woozy and gratuitously belligerent as his hero.
Berg, a former actor, also leaves his stars in the lurch. Smith and Theron wear an expression I've never seen on them before. It's called, "What's my motivation?" And obligated to feel something trudging out of the theater, I was left in the lurch, too. What's mine?
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.