Written by Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan, and not based on a comic book character, Hancock is the story of a superhero with an attitude problem. John Hancock (Will Smith) lives in Los Angeles, frequents skid-row bars, drinks his whiskey straight from the bottle, sleeps on park benches and pays scant attention to personal hygiene. But he's got powers rivaled only by those of Superman. He's faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, feats he explicitly illustrates in one manifestation of the film's sneaky humor.
Moreover, just like Superman, Hancock feels bound to do routine good deeds. He thwarts bank robbers and convenience store stick-ups, teaches manners to the schoolyard bully and saves the lives of endangered innocents. But because he's sometimes drunk, regularly hung over and always indifferent, he makes a lot of mess in the course of executing his beneficence. In the opening action sequence, he manages to apprehend an escaping carload of hoodlums who are shooting machine guns while driving at breakneck speed on the freeway, but in the process he does an estimated $7 million in damages to roadways, buildings and police cars. As a consequence, he's the most unpopular superhero in history.
One man, however, Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), has a more positive view of Hancock, and not entirely because Hancock saves Ray from being run over by a train. Ray is a good person who looks for the good in others. So when he gets the chance, he decides to help Hancock work on his image. Ray arranges for Hancock to wear a superhero uniform rather than dirty jeans, teaches him to say nice things to people he meets, guides him to reduce the collateral damage of his good deeds and convinces him to make public repentance for slovenly superheroing in the past. All of this has a distinctly humorous edge, of course, and if it's never hilarious, it does produce a steady stream of laughs. But the filmmakers never let the picture descend into camp. Their ambitions are to make a superhero flick with twists such movies never attempt.
Alas, the script is weighed down with too many moments of head-scratching dumbness. Hancock has been hounding criminals in L.A. for decades, but no crook seems to understand that Hancock can't be shot, cut or bludgeoned. Even after he's put them behind bars, they forget who they are dealing with. A score or so of recidivists surround him in a prison yard as if they are going to punish him for apprehending them, and they mysteriously persist even after he warns them he's going to do vile things to them if they don't leave him alone. This kind of collective, self-destructive amnesia is rife in superhero movies, but you'd think Hancock would have wanted to do better.
Comparable foolishness attends a big sequence in which Hancock rescues a bank full of hostages from four psychopaths packing enough artillery to conquer Baghdad. With cars exploding and bullets whizzing thick as fog, a crowd gathers just outside the bank and stands six deep behind police barriers as if they're along the red carpet at the Oscars. I don't think so. Worst of all, just like Superman, Hancock limits his decriminalizing to the perpetrators of common thuggery. Why hasn't it occurred to him to arrest Osama bin Laden or Robert Mugabe or speed off to Washington and make George W. Bush stop torturing prisoners?
Such annoyances are at least partially compensated for by developments between Hancock and Ray's wife Mary (Charlize Theron). From the moment they meet over a family dinner one night, we can tell that Mary knows something about Hancock, maybe good, maybe not, that we haven't discovered yet. Learning what Mary knows takes us to places we absolutely do not expect, and that's a gift superhero movies just don't deliver. Hancock is also notable for the quality of its performances, another feature uncommon to the genre. Smith and Theron are both notably fine.