Is Judge Daniel MacDonald a superhero? Aw, hell no!
There are heroes. There are superheroes. And then there's…Hancock
I enjoyed the theatrical release of Hancock, but it felt compromised—too short (at 92 minutes), and clearly the subject of editing and overdubbing to secure a PG-13 rating. Now that an unrated version has arrived on Blu-ray, let's see if ten more minutes can make a difference.
Facts of the Case
An alcoholic loner with super strength and the ability to fly, John Hancock (Will Smith, Ali) is far from your average superhero. While he fights crime, he does so with a bottle of whisky in his hand and little regard for the wanton destruction he leaves behind. Much of Los Angeles actively hates this seemingly indestructible being. When he saves the life of a not-very-successful PR agent named Ray (Jason Bateman, The Kingdom), Ray tries to return the favor by rehabilitating Hancock's image—starting with some time in prison to show people how much they'll miss him when he's gone. While his wife Mary (Charlize Theron, North Country) would prefer for the slovenly Hancock to just go away, Ray is sure he can turn around public opinion and make Hancock the city's savior. While he's struggling to accept the mantle of "hero," Hancock discovers new information about his mysterious past that may help him find a purpose for his life.
Hancock is a postmodern superhero origin story. While Hancock is already fighting bad guys at the start of the film, he does so reluctantly; we're introduced to him passed out on a bus bench, being prodded by a foul-mouthed child to intervene in a freeway shootout. When he finally gets moving, he manages to cause $10 million damage to stop one rogue SUV. Later, Hancock saves Ray from being hit by a train by flipping his car aside and destroying the locomotive. Bystanders understandably question why he couldn't just fly the car out of harm's way rather than cause so much wreckage, but Hancock's so accustomed to being underappreciated that the criticism bounces off him like so many bullets. Later, Ray tells him that being a hero is Hancock's destiny, and until he accepts that, he'll never be happy—and that's Hancock's journey, the journey to accept his place in the world.
Director Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights) succeeds at placing Hancock in a very realistic setting and being true to the consequences of his over-the-top actions. Every takeoff and landing leaves a crater for someone else to fix; every time he flies drunk, he puts at risk skyscrapers and airplanes alike. Even his drinking and sour attitude ring truer than some of the altruistic heroes we've seen onscreen. This is a man who knows almost nothing of his past, who is the only one of his kind on Earth, and who is less popular with the public than a tax increase; of course he's depressed. And no matter how strong his defenses, how much he denies it, all Hancock really wants is to be accepted.
The unrated cut of the picture, available alongside the theatrical version on the disc, adds only about ten minutes to the running time but it makes for a markedly better film. Most of the additional running time is an early scene of Hancock being picked up in a bar, taking the young lady back to his trailer then scaring her away. The scene is both funny and sad, adding significantly to the character's pathos. The rest of the additions are subtler, a new shot here and there but nothing especially significant. What is significant, however, is freeing the language from the constraints of a PG-13 rating. Hancock is a foul-mouthed character, and you'll hear significantly more swearing in this film than in nearly any other superhero movie, but it's never gratuitous—Hancock is supposed to be a coarse character that couldn't care less, and to succeed at capturing the truth of his temperament, realistic language is essential. In this cut, Hancock is more abrasive and more sympathetic. We understand him better, root for him more, and are increasingly engaged by his journey.
Hancock succeeds at turning its genre's conventions on their head, transposing familiar tropes into a harder-edged reality: X-Men conceived as a late-'80s action movie. What is somewhat less successful, even in this unrated edition, is the pacing of the third act.
Mild Spoiler Warning
Despite the fact that what I mention below is revealed explicitly on the back of the Blu-ray case, it's still a plot twist that some may wish to discover in the film itself.
From the time Mary is revealed to have superpowers too, Hancock moves at warp speed, throwing out revelations like blasts from a shotgun. After a more deliberately paced first 75 minutes or so, it can be rather jarring to have so much happen so quickly, and the movie still feels like it could use more time to breathe. However, I found this to be significantly less egregious on the unrated version than the theatrical cut—perhaps it's the better-realized characterizations, or maybe the consistency of tone makes the whole movie more cohesive. Nonetheless it's a better, but not perfect, experience.
Will Smith is one of the few working actors who could've pulled this character off. No matter what we see him doing, from a close-up of a farmer blow to drinking his way through a family meal, we can't help but root for the man, which makes this lonely superhero all the more sympathetic. There's a reason he makes $20 million a movie. It's great to see Jason Bateman in a big summer blockbuster, bringing his fresh delivery to much of Hancock's comic relief. Bateman nearly steals many scenes in which he appears. Charlize Theron has a small but vital role, and while it's not her most challenging work, she's consistently solid. Look for cameos of producers Michael Mann (director of Heat and The Insider) and Akiva Goldsman (Oscar-winning writer of A Beautiful Mind) in an office scene.
The video transfer on this Blu-ray release is damn near perfect, with a fine sheen of film grain still intact, vibrant colors, and an overall very pleasing reproduction of the theatrical experience. Wide shots show plenty of sharp detail, edges are crisp without enhancement, and dark areas show no compression artifacts. The audio, using the Dolby TrueHD codec, is immersive and dynamic, with plenty of low end and surround activity. It's not as aggressive a mix as, say, Iron Man, but it's fully appropriate to the tone of the film. Director Peter Berg peppered the picture with an eclectic, fantastic soundtrack, featuring a needle drop of the Ice-T classic "Colors"!
Special features cover more ground than you might expect, with featurettes covering costumes, set decoration, building the sets, previsualizing certain sequences, digital and practical effects, and a short compendium of clips featuring Berg doing odd or funny things. None of it is especially in-depth, but you can get a decent sense of the sorts of considerations that go into making a film of this scale. All but one of the featurettes are in high definition. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is a picture-in-picture "On-Set Visual Diary" that includes footage of most scenes being shot overlaid on the sequences themselves. It's a great use of Blu technology, and I hope more studios include this sort of thing in future releases. Also included is a digital copy on a second disc.
While not quite perfect, Hancock is a highly enjoyable, darkly comic look at a grumpy superhero living in the real world. This unique, well-constructed tale is especially worthwhile in its new, unrated form.
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