Yep, it’s crucify Will Smith time. (We love that time almost as much as we love Thursday night spaghetti madness.)
Will Smith has a lot going for him. He’s charismatic, he can act (“Ali” proved it, if it accomplished little else), he’s not an awful musician, and he’s preternaturally good-looking. Not only that, but he’s an old-fasioned Entertainer of the most noble kind. Every time you see Will Smith doing anything, it seems designed to make you at least a little bit happier. Will Smith pushed “Independence Day” from intolerable hokum to mildly amusing pap, and pushed a sitcom into endless syndication through sheer force of personality (because trust me, nothing else in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” was going to do it). And on top of that, he seems to have an actual artistic inclination. How else to explain his recent string of movie choices: “Ali,” “The Pursuit of Happyness,” “I Am Legend,” and now “Hancock”?
The trouble is, the people he’s working with keep missing the mark. Wildly.
“Hancock” follows in the footsteps of “I Am Legend” by giving us a different Will Smith, a guy digging in and finding a performance other than the semi-iconic one from “Men in Black” that he could profitably repeat for the next 30 years if he wanted. “I Am Legend” gave us a soulful, mournful Will Smith with almost no jokes and a lot of “last of my kind” angst. “Hancock” gives us a kind of darkly comedic twist on the same thing; Smith’s Hancock* drinks and possibly snorts coke and causes huge whirlwinds of catastrophe wherever he goes, but he’s also rogueishly charming and gets off a few good wisecracks, like this one:
Random woman at the scene of a Hancock-caused train wreck: You smell like liquor!
Hancock: Bitch, I’ve been drinking!
It’s so anti-clever that it’s almost clever. And Smith delivers the line with exactly the right go-fuck-yourself insouciance.
But just like “I Am Legend,” “Hancock” lets Smith down. It takes a bold creative choice – a demythologizing approach to the hero pic that we might have been comparing to what “Unforgiven” did to the Western, or what Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight” did to, er, heroes – and swiftly discards it in favor of what the creative team clearly saw as a crowd-pleasing, blockbuster ending. The second half is nothing but convoluted backstory mixed with bad plotting and the sacrifice of everything interesting about the main character. By the time Hancock is predictably surviving the attack that should have killed him and (sort of) sacrificing himself to save the woman he (sort of) loves, the surly drunk of the opening scenes is long gone – and it turns out he took everything interesting about the movie with him. It reminds me of the disappointment I felt when “I Am Legend” funneled into a predictable action/horror showdown at the end, except that lasted just a few minutes; “Hancock” goes off the rails halfway through.
What Smith needs is to follow his instincts the rest of the way. He’s clearly drawn to interesting material and potentially career-altering concepts, and doesn’t want to keep recycling the lighter-than-air parts that made him such a bankable movie star. But he also just as clearly is working with people that don’t share his goals, and that want to ensure that their $100 million investments are recouped with interest at the box office. The solution? Dump the star salary, dump the grossly over-sized budgets and nail-chewing producers (“Do we put Hancock on a McDonald’s cup, or Burger King? Which one plays better?”), and team up with a true maverick. How about an “I Am Legend” made for half the budget, with no CGI, and directed by George Romero? How about a “Hancock” that follows through on its darkest instincts and doesn’t track the theme from “Sanford & Son” over a scene of Hancock literally shoving someone’s head up someone else’s ass**? Or how about Will Smith in a Werner Herzog or PT Anderson movie?
He’s standing on the threshold of something interesting. Let’s give him a push one way or the other. ‘Cause right now, he’s just blocking the door.
In other news… the trailer for “The Day The Earth Stood Still” (the remake starring Keanu Reeves) played in front of “Hancock” last night. I’d like to ask the producers of this movie a question, and here it is: why “The Day The Earth Stood Still”? I would have gone with “Star Wars” or “Aliens” or maybe “Caddyshack.” Really you could have chosen almost any title, and there would have been just as much resemblance between this movie and the one it is allegedly remaking.
Unless the next trailer for this movie includes a giant fuckin’ robot named Gort, count me out.
Strangely, the remake virus has also infected Werner Herzog, of all people. But in his predictably unpredictable fashion, he’s decided to remake – get this – “Bad Lieutenant.” (wha?) With Nicholas Cage and Val Kilmer. Which means this will either be the best or the worst movie ever made. So thumbs up, Werner!
* Not a penis joke.
** Really. P.S. Sorry for the many, many spoilers in this post, but if I have discouraged you from seeing this movie, I feel I’ve done my job.