Will Smith is many things - a two-time Oscar-nominated actor, a multi-platinum-selling recording artist and, hands down, the biggest box-office star in today's Hollywood firmament (sorry, Tom Cruise). He is still not, however, on the evidence of his latest film, Hancock, big enough or powerful enough to fracture Hollywood's last great mainstream movie taboo - the depiction of interracial romance. For reasons known only to studio marketers and Middle American taste makers, Smith is repeatedly denied romance with his white female co-stars. Black and Hispanic actresses, from Vivica A Fox (Independence Day) to Eva Mendes (Hitch) are, it seems, qualified for the job of snogging Smith. Yet white ladies who are interested in anything other than casual flirtation (see Téa Leoni in Bad Boys) need not apply.
Consequently, Hancock, an anti-comic-book movie that's giddy with narrative potential and bubbling with satirical digs at the blockbuster form, simply implodes at the midpoint mark when everything, including the script, the actors and the direction, is pointing to the consummation of a relationship between Smith, playing a degenerate superhero, and his blonde, white co-star Charlize Theron, playing the wife of the publicist Jason Bateman.
Up until that point, however, the movie promises the world. It opens in deliciously wry form, with Smith at war with himself, his damage-prone superpowers (crime-fighting + inebriation = mass destruction) and the public who clearly despise him. "I can smell the liquor off your breath!" hisses a disgruntled middle-aged woman, at the site of Hancock's latest destructive intervention. "That's coz I been drinking," comes the curt reply. Soon Hancock is persuaded to employ the makeover talents of Bateman's PR guru Ray, but his attention is repeatedly drawn to Ray's dishy wife, Mary (Theron). Through a series of looks and stares, and brittle conversations, the director Peter Berg and his two credited screenwriters convey the palpable sense that Mary is repulsed by Hancock's egotistical antics, and yet intrinsically drawn to him at the same time. A dinner scene, in particular, between Hancock, Mary and Ray, bristles with tension.
This, naturally, makes for fascinating viewing, and when mixed with bravura audience-pleasing effects (sequences of derailed cargo trains and airborne SUVs are littered throughout) it suggests a summer blockbuster with very sophisticated ambitions. Sadly, this is ultimately just a tease, and the prospect of a Theron-Smith union proves too much for the fearful filmmakers, who perform a hysterical volte-face at the very moment the two actors attempt their first kiss. Here the story goes into meltdown. It drags in everything from Plato's Symposium to Christian mythology to explain a preposterous plot twist. It creates a shockingly bland bank-robbing supervillain in the Mike Leigh regular Eddie Marsen. And, through a tedious, effects-filled slam-bam finale, it becomes the very movie it set out to ridicule. Which, if nothing else, is a shame.