Writing a review for Hancock demands a commitment the movie itself doesn't return. Hancock plays with our emotions: It's alternately one of the best movies of the summer and one of the worst (or, at least, it can get as bland as the ones dedicated to being consistently boring).
Start with the concept: Will Smith plays an unkempt alcoholic begrudgingly saddled with the responsibility of having superpowers. (Accept it, Will Smith's casting is part of Hancock's concept.) Great so far.
Second thing: The film's directed by Peter Berg. This creates an inexplicable-by-science phenomenon---what can happen when a can't-lose concept is given to a can't-win director. Berg achieved the impossible already with the feature Friday Night Lights. But last year, working with the far dopier script for The Kingdom, Berg revealed that his barf-cam approach to cinema may be all he is good for. Hancock continues along the same lines from its first frames. Berg's over-praised appropriation of handheld documentary camerawork makes no sense in a lighthearted superhero romp, but the technique frees him from fulfilling the expected role of the filmmaker. He isn't required to compose a single striking image.
What pleasure there is in Hancock comes from the way the film messes with the balancing of power and responsibility that's typical of superhero movies. As John Hancock (named after the guy who invented signing your name), Will Smith is a reluctant, lazy superhero---the type of person that LA officials would sooner deem a blight on society than admit he's stopping crime. Hancock never laments his identity like Batman and Spider-Man do.
The movie's first half has the hedonistic rush of the scene in Superman II where Clark Kent uses his power to his own benefit, turning the tables on a thug who humiliated him in a diner. What makes Hancock interesting as a character is that he still cares just enough to motivate himself to save lives.
And when Hancock saves public relations guy Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) from an oncoming train, he's welcomed into Embrey's home. But just as the culture clash between Hancock and Ray's wife Mary (Charlize Theron), who would like a less macho role model for her son, seems ready to develop into real satire, Berg and the screenwriters drop it.
The family discord is just a set-up for a twist that, while supported by what's happened previously, is still unsatisfying. Throwing in a major turn demands that the twist be rooted in an aspect of the story viewers care about. The introduction of a cardboard villain in the film's last half ensures generic action.
For a while, Hancock shows Smith's universal appeal isn't stagnant. The actor's rise from respected comic rap and sitcom star to blockbuster headliner is supported by the way he's able to guide Hancockthrough its mediocre filmmaking to somewhere fresh. But like too many movies this summer, the film lacks the confidence to build on its best early scenes.
Put it just below Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as the best first-half-of-a-movie of the year.