From the moment Hancock first introduces Will Smith as a drunken, glowering, foul-mouthed superhero, it seems clear that he's eventually going to rehabilitate himself into the charming version of Will Smith, the one who became famous on the strength of wisecracks and a famously infectious grin. The movie telegraphs that change in the trailer and even in the first half-hour of action, as Smith's hostile hero—who frequently causes millions of dollars in damages while sloppily foiling crimes in Los Angeles—meets PR man Jason Bateman, who offers him a major public-image makeover. But the obvious never happens. Instead, Hancock takes off at right angles, essentially turning into M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable, as seen through the big action lens of modern superhero movies like Iron Man and the Spider-Man series.
Like Shyamalan's movies, Hancock leans clumsily on a twisted, complicated mythology that's revealed in awkward chunks just in time to become relevant to the plot. Unlike Shyamalan's films, it's a propulsive action movie that zips through its first half-hour on a wave of big setpieces, directed with herky-jerky handheld queasiness by Friday Night Lights' Peter Berg. The story attempts to balance pathos, drama, action, and comedy, with mixed results. When the soundtrack answers Smith's latest over-the-top act of super-violence with the theme from Sanford And Son, or the script mines running-gag yuks out of Smith's frustration over all the people who call him "asshole," Hancock seems so recklessly silly that it's hard to follow its sudden turn into tragedy.
Still, it's a daring, even mildly challenging mixture for a superhero film, and while the pieces don't entirely add up, the puzzle is at least original. Smith is too much a ubiquitous superstar to entirely disappear into his role, but his playing against type offers its own flavors of comedy, and Bateman, in his comfortably well-worn role as a glib peacemaker, fills the charisma void left by Smith's stony performance. Hancock is an odd film—part My Super Ex-Girlfriend, part Transformers-esque messy blockbuster, part weird indie comic—but while it isn't necessarily as poignant as it wants to be, it manages the humor and heroics side of the equation admirably enough. If nothing else, it's worth it just to see a ready-made Superman-sized superhero in action without all the baggage of decades of retellings and reworkings; even looking at familiar faces working through a familiar genre, it's nice to be surprised for once.