It’s summer and if Will Smith keeps to form, he’ll surely add a few more zeroes to his bank balance. It is beyond dispute: The last 14 movies featuring the Fresh Prince grossed $4.7 billion worldwide. Will Smith defines bankable movie star.
From Bad Boys on, he’s fed a growing film identity through a series of shrewd, quirky career choices. More than once, a familiar Will Smith character saves humanity from oblivion (Independence Day, both Men in Black, I, Robot) with a combination of wit, attitude and cool. He further refined that persona last December when I am Legend hit the cineplex. The global box office ($584 million) shows audiences are fully comfortable in the company of this movie hero who’s sprinkled a dash of nobility onto his film profile.
A different character trait flavors the mix in Smith’s newest release, Hancock. Will’s name on the marquee assures Hancock will open strongly, but will it sustain? This hero is hard to like. That’s the heart of our Smackdown!: Does Hancock build upon Will Smith’s demonstrated star power, or is it a step back from I am Legend?
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Hancock gives us a hero with the powers of Superman and the personality of a charm school dropout. He drinks a lot, and doesn’t much care if you know it. When trouble erupts, no need for a Bat signal: You can usually find Hancock laid out on a park bench and he looks like he’d rather not be bothered. Bad guys start shooting up the freeway and Hancock flies to the rescue, but extracts a fearful price. Cars are wrecked, the freeway is torn up and the getaway car is impaled on the tower of the Capitol Records building. He doesn’t handle the superhero thing very well, and people resent Hancock. They lay on the abuse after he wrecks a train while saving motorist Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) stalled on the tracks. Ray is a public relations consultant who decides there’s nothing wrong with Hancock that can’t be cured with a positive PR spin. The makeover lands Hancock in prison, then out with a form-fitting costume and a freshly scrubbed personality. His heroism is now only slightly less messy. This tale, rewritten by Vince Gilligan from Vincent Ngo’s long-dormant screenplay, takes a sharp left turn away from a predictable ending. Ray’s soccer-mom wife, Mary (Charlize Theron) reveals a big secret that complicates everything. From this point on nothing is the same and very little makes sense.
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The Defending Champion
By contrast, writers Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman give Will Smith a more direct story line in I am Legend. A medical breakthrough lauded as a cure for cancer goes haywire. A virus breaks out and the humans it doesn’t kill outright become blood thirsty monsters. For several years Dr. Robert Neville (Smith) works on a vaccine using his own, uninfected, blood. He dutifully transmits a daily radio signal from Manhattan, imploring anyone to respond. In this nightmare landscape someone finally does and saves Neville from the attacking zombies. Mary (Anna Braga) and her little boy are headed toward a “survivors’ colony” she believes is in Vermont. Neville’s testing is showing positive signs and perhaps they’ll all go to Vermont. The monsters have other ideas. They discover where Neville lives and lay siege to his house. A lethal showdown shows us who survives, who does not and what becomes of the human race.
Both movies give you a lot to like, for different reasons. You won’t be disappointed by the level of special effects; they are excellent. Manhattan is a wasteland in Legend inhabited by lions and monsters. Will Smith is equally compelling in both movies. Legend gives audiences the sort of star turn you’ve seen in his last few movies: He’s strong, heady and very directed. Even noble. Luckily, Smith is strong enough to carry the story because it’s really just him and some snarling zombies.
In Hancock he gets some help. Smith’s character is surly, anti-social and probably smells. He always makes a mess (in hilarious, anatomically unlikely ways) when resolving a confrontation. Ray doesn’t see this repellent drunk as a lost cause and commits to help because Hancock saved him from an oncoming train. Jason Bateman fits his role perfectly. An even larger story element appears in the form of Mary Embrey. Once you know her secret — and I won’t tell you here — the entire movie changes. That may explain the movie’s promotional strategy and why you don’t see Charlize Theron featured in the clips. She’s the only Academy Award winner here and her promotional value is muted.
Can we say whether Will Smith has taken a step forward or back? Read on.
This Smackdown! requires a close look at the score cards. Legend tells a straight ahead story well and this film is a giant hit. This is enjoyable entertainment. I have the DVD and I’m not alone.
Hancock takes turns being very entertaining and very confusing. There is no question it will do strong business this holiday weekend. After that, it may be unclear once the word gets out how this is not the movie you expected. It’s just different. His purported links to the Church of Scientology, while unconnected to this movie, could also turn off some viewers. That is not any part of my judgment here.
Ultimately, Hancock benefits most from a strong supporting cast. Audiences may appreciate the corkscrew direction this movie takes as another sign that Will Smith seeks a broader footprint. It’s a small step forward, but enough to settle on our winner, Hancock.