Thursday, February 26, 2009

Hancock (2008)

A lot of superhero movies have a certain something in common. No matter how much damage or destruction is caused during their exploits, superheroes eventually get a free pass from the public at large because he or she is serving the greater good. Sooner or later, though, there was bound to be a superhero whose actions didn't exactly endear him to the general public. That superhero finally arrived when Columbia Pictures brought us Hancock.

Hancock spent over a decade languishing in developmental hell, going through five directors, numerous rewrites, and three name changes. But Hancock was finally released in the summer of 2008, telling the tale of a cynical superhero who isn't concerned with the fact that he's thoroughly unappreciated by the people he's supposed to be protecting. Though the movie's concept is one that could have made for a fun commentary on superheroes and the genre they populate, but unfortunately, Hancock ends up being a big ol' letdown.

John Hancock (Will Smith) is a superhero, blessed with the gifts of super-strength, flight, invulnerability, and immortality. He's also a homeless bum, a raging alcoholic, and someone who just doesn't give a crap about anybody or anything. That works just fine for the citizens of Los Angeles, because they don't particularly care for him either. The city's general displeasure with Hancock is caused not only by his bad attitude, but thanks to his recklessness, his attempts at fighting crime often go very awry. In one instance, his interception of a gang being chased by the police causes nine million dollars worth of collateral damage in the process. In another, he saves a man from being hit by a freight train, but his lackadaisical attempt results in the train's derailment.

But after the train incident, Hancock's life is about to get a little different. Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), a struggling yet idealistic public relations executive and the man Hancock saved from the train, is genuinely grateful for having been rescued. And much to the chagrin of his disapproving wife Mary (Charlize Theron), Ray offers to repay Hancock by helping change his image for the better. With better interpersonal skills, a few public apologies, a customized leather costume, and some help from Alcoholics Anonymous and anger management classes, Ray thinks Hancock could go from being an antisocial drunk that receives more jeers than cheers to being the respected hero he could be. He even suggests Hancock do a stint in prison for the various misdemeanors he has committed, theorizing that the crime rate would rise high enough during his absence that the police would be begging for his assistance. Though hesitant, Hancock eventually agrees to heed Ray's advice and starts to change his ways. But as Ray and Hancock's business relationship blossoms, there soon grows an odd spark between Hancock and Mary. And as we all know, every superhero has a weakness, and Hancock's quickly reveals itself.

Hancock is perhaps the most bipolar movie I believe I've ever seen. It doesn't know whether it wants to be a conventional superhero movie or a satire of them, or whether it wants to be a melodrama, an action movie, a dark comedy, or something with a little more slapstick. There is so much potential in Hancock's concept, but its indecisiveness and its inconsistency in regards to its own identity really affects it in a bad way. It ends up becoming a number of completely different movies crammed into one ultimately disappointing 92-minute package. The first of these movies starts promising, but once we reach a certain point, the movie takes an incredibly sharp turn for the worse. If I may borrow a metaphor from the review written by Kenneth Turan for the Los Angeles Times, the creators of Hancock had a tiger by the tail with the movie's initial concept. But once they let it go, the tiger turned around and devoured them. And that, my friends, is the story of Hancock.

As per the usual in my reviews, let's begin with the direction. Peter Berg is at the helm here, and admittedly, his work isn't too bad. He's competent, at the very least. It doesn't help Berg, though, that he's stuck working from a script that feels like it was cobbled together from a bunch of other scripts. It feels like several movies put into one, which puts Berg in the awkward position of having to make sense of it all. He does do the best he can, though. He and cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler manage to make a movie that at least looks good. Their work goes a long way, making the intimate scenes feel intimate and the action scenes feel exciting, for the most part. (It also helps that they have John Powell's effective musical score helping them along.) There are some parts that don't quite work, but it's mostly due to the bad writing or the occasional instance of less-than-stellar special effects. But Berg and Schliessler put things together solidly, and any complaints I have are minor at worst.

Up next is the writing, which is the worst problem Hancock suffers from. Credited to Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan, the script got its start as "Tonight, He Comes," a spec script written by Ngo back in 1996. Going through all kinds of rewrites between then and now, the script ended up becoming a brutal mismatch of ideas, none of which properly gel together. Does the movie want to be a standard superhero flick? A parody or deconstruction of them? A comedy or a drama? The superhero version of Leaving Las Vegas? It could have been any of these and none of these, but it's hard to tell because all the rewrites have diluted the movie into a total mess. It's hard to really get into a movie if you're not sure exactly what kind of movie it's supposed to be. The script ultimately makes Hancock a confused movie unsure of its own identity. It's bad enough to ruin the entire movie.

It doesn't help anything that Hancock doesn't even really have a villain. The way the movie is structured leaves precious little room for an antagonist. But since they have to do something to create tension in the (rather lame) climax, they end up shoehorning in some random thug that Hancock encountered halfway through the movie. The character, played by Eddie Marsan, only has three scenes at most, and is a complete non-factor until the end. I don't think they even bother to give the character's name until the cast listing in the closing credits. The whole thing is an exercise in futility. Maybe they could have ripped off the twist from Unbreakable and made Ray the villain. Jason Bateman doesn't seem like the villainous type, but that's what would've made it work. Nobody would have seen it coming.

However, the cast does make attempts to overcome the lame writing. Casting Will Smith proved to be a wise move for two reasons. One is that the producers guaranteed themselves box office success. Unless the movie ends up being as terrible as Wild Wild West, a midsummer blockbuster starring Will Smith is going to make a lot of money. The second reason it was a wise move is that Smith's charisma and charm make the character worth following. It's weird seeing Smith play a character that starts out being so abrasive. It's like a character that would have been played by Tom Cruise in the mid-'80s. The truth is that if he were played by anyone else, you'd end up absolutely hating Hancock's guts. But Smith's naturally charming nature makes hating him really tough. He is good in the role, though. His performance as the cynical drunk version of Hancock is so engaging, in fact, that you almost want the character to stay off the road to redemption.

He's so good, in fact, that he almost totally overshadows the supporting cast, as small as it is. Jason Bateman is effective as Ray, infusing the character with a much-needed sense of earnestness (and a little naïveté, as well). It really suits the character well. Bateman is endearing in the role, and you can't help but like him. And in the role of Bateman's character's wife, Charlize Theron's performance is acceptable, but I'm not quite sure if she was the right person for the role. I can understand why she was hired; if I were a movie producer, I'd want to hire an Oscar winner too. But the character is an enigmatic one, one whose background sets up an absolutely ridiculous plot twist halfway through the movie. The character comes across as way too mysterious for her own good before the actual twist occurs, and it's only exacerbated by Theron's presence. She is way too famous to be playing a simple housewife in a movie like this, so you know something is up as soon as you see her. If the role had been played by a B-list character actress instead, maybe things wouldn't have been so... I don't know, obvious? Is that the word I'm looking for?

Financially, Hancock was a success. It further cementing Will Smith's status as the king of the Fourth of July blockbusters. But creatively, the movie is almost bankrupt. Things start out so well and with so much promise, but after a certain point, Hancock ends up becoming just another stupid, hollow movie with nothing to give besides a bunch of flickering images on a movie screen. The initial concept behind Hancock had boundless potential, and it could have been the best deconstruction of the superhero myth to come along since DC Comics first published Watchmen back in 1986. But all that potential goes to waste, and we end up with this. That's a real shame, too. So I can't really justify giving Hancock anything higher than two and a half stars out of the usual five. Really, it takes more than just a couple of big-name actors and an inspired concept to make a good movie.

Final Rating: **½

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)

When you think of comic book publishers, you'll probably think of DC and Marvel first. And that's natural, since they're the biggest fish in the pond. But similar to movies and music, comic books also have their own independent publishers who release books quite different from those carrying the DC and Marvel labels. Among the most prolific of these publishers is Dark Horse Comics, whose initial comic books hit newsstands in 1986. Dark Horse has seen many characters grace the covers of their books over the years, but one of the most memorable has been Hellboy. Created by Mike Mignola, Hellboy's supernatural adventures have earned a cult following since his first appearance in 1993.

He also caught the eye of filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro, a fan of the comics who brought Hellboy into the mainstream with a live-action movie released in 2004. The movie performed modestly during its theatrical run, bringing in 99 million dollars worldwide. A sequel was announced, and after spending years in pre-production and bouncing from Sony's now-defunct Revolution Studios to Universal Pictures, Hellboy II: The Golden Army saw its release on July 11, 2008. And as someone who enjoyed the first movie, I can say that the sequel lives up to all of my expectations.

Centuries ago, there was a war between humans and mythical creatures for dominance of Earth. King Balor (Roy Dotrice), the ruler of the elves, released a platoon of 4,900 mechanical soldiers called the Golden Army in an effort to win the war. But when he saw the amount of merciless devastation caused by the unstoppable Golden Army, the regretful King Balor forged a truce with his foes. Humans would be allowed to live in the cities they had built, while the creatures would stay hidden in the shadows. To prevent the reactivation of the Golden Army, Balor broke the crown that controlled them into three pieces. One piece would stay in the human world, while the elves would retain possession of the other two.

Fast forward to present day. King Balor's jaded son, Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), has had enough of a life spent hidden away from what he considers his people's rightful kingdom. He declares war on the human world, choosing to unleash the Golden Army to accomplish his goal. Nuada violently raids an auction house to collect one piece of the fractured crown, and kills his father to acquire the second piece. When his frightened twin sister Nuala (Anna Wilson) flees with the final piece of the crown, she crosses paths with the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, who themselves were investigating the attack on their auction house. The BPRD's agents — surly demon Hellboy (Ron Perlman); his pyrokinetic girlfriend, Liz Sherman (Selma Blair); amphibious fish-man Abe Sapien (Doug Jones); and their ectoplasmic supervisor, Johann Krauss (the voice of Seth MacFarlane) — offer Nuala their protection, but quickly find that opposing Nuada will be more than they bargained for.

I've read many a review that has hailed Guillermo Del Toro as a visionary filmmaker. The success of The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth have placed him at the top of the fantasy genre, earning him a reputation as a filmmaker whose creativity and imagination are worthy of respect. Del Toro has brought that creativity he's known for to Hellboy II, building a movie that will appeal to anyone who enjoys movies of its ilk. Hellboy II was released just seven days before the moneymaking juggernaut that was The Dark Knight, meaning that it probably wasn't as financially successful as it could have been. But now that it's been on DVD for a while, I hope that people will be able to discover it and see just how imaginative the movie is. Hellboy II is one of those rare sequels that actually exceeds the quality of its predecessor, and is a great movie in its own right. So let's get to the meat and potatoes of this review and see just what makes Hellboy II so great.

First up to bat is Del Toro's direction. Having been given free reign to make the most of his creativity, he uses the opportunity to build a movie whose visual flair allows the viewer's imagination to run just as wild as Del Toro's. Working with cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, Del Toro creates not a series of images on a movie screen, but an entire world to get lost in. Seriously, the movie's effects wizards and production designers totally earned their paychecks. Scenes like the BPRD's visit to the Troll Market are beautifully rendered, while the digital effects are at the pinnacle of what can be done with CGI. The practical effects are no slouch either, as characters like Nuada's hulking bodyguard look fantastic.

I should also give props to the score composed by Danny Elfman. I don't know if I would list his music here amongst his most memorable, but it is most certainly effective. It really assists the visuals by helping establish the mood, and I'm not sure the movie would have the same impact without Elfman's work. The only part of the music that doesn't really work is the use of the occasional pop song, none of which really suit the movie. The only song that really does work is Barry Manilow's "Can't Smile Without You," the use of which is actually pretty funny.

Next on the list is the screenplay, penned by Del Toro and Mike Mignola. The story isn't very deep, and there really isn't any sort of underlying message or anything like that. There're also some small plot holes that are created by the denouement, though they really only bug you if you bother to linger on them long enough. I was also a wee bit disappointed that they never really delved into the potential subplot regarding Hellboy's interactions with mainstream society. But Del Toro and Mignola really do what they can to craft something entertaining. Their characters and how they interact with one another are a huge boon for the movie, and do a lot to give us something to follow besides all the pretty special effects.

Del Toro and Mignola also succeed in giving us a villain that whose intentions we are, in a weird way, able to understand. He's not a megalomaniac or someone who wants to blow up the planet or anything like that; he just feels that he has been unfairly slighted, and wants to reclaim the kingdom that he believes belongs to him and his people and punish those who he feels have stolen it from him. Yeah, he's still a villain, but you can kinda understand his motivation.

But let's move on to perhaps the movie's most entertaining component, its cast. Once again playing the titular demon, Ron Perlman is pitch perfect. I honestly cannot imagine anyone else playing Hellboy, because Perlman completely owns the role. His portrayal of Hellboy is a layered one, as his surly, mischievous behavior is a cover for a longing to be accepted by the outside world and to understand his proper place in the universe. Perlman pulls this off convincingly, and I hope he continues to play the role in any future sequels. The Hellboy movies just wouldn't be the same without him.

But despite the movie being titled Hellboy II, it features an ensemble cast, many of whom are also returning from the previous movie. Selma Blair reprises her role as Liz Sherman, and improves upon her performance in the previous movie. Whereas she was a troubled, confused, frightened woman before, Blair's Liz is now strong-willed, confident, and assertive. Blair handles this evolution fantastically, handing in a likable performance that I found to be different yet equal to her great work on the first movie.

Doug Jones also returns to play Abe Sapien, now having been given the extra responsibility of doing his own vocal work as well. With David Hyde Pierce of Fraiser fame doing Abe's voice in the first movie, Jones was stuck in a thankless position as the physical half of the character. But now voicing the character as well, Jones is allowed to put forth a more rounded performance. He's likable in the role, making the character stand out more. And considering that Jones plays two other characters as well, so I'd say he earned his paycheck.

Supplying the movie's comic relief, Jeffrey Tambor and Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane are both quite funny. Their dry wit in their roles as the de facto straight men goes a long way, and I enjoyed their work. And since MacFarlane's role was limited to only voiceover work, as the character was physically portrayed by John Alexander and James Dodd, he wasn't really able to interact with the rest of the cast. But he still manages to contribute some funny bits.

Rounding out the cast are Anna Wilson and Luke Goss. Wilson is okay, though the role isn't what I would call demanding,. All that's really required of her is to be a doe-eyed damsel that sits in the background while the fighting happens. Del Toro could have had her be a bit more proactive, a bit more like Princess Leia, but he didn't. It's too late to change it now, but the fact that Princess Nuala is just kinda there doesn't give Wilson any real time to shine.

Goss, meanwhile, is good, but never really strikes me as being an intimidating villain. Yeah, Prince Nuada is a strong character, but ultimately, he didn't feel as threatening as he could have. Outside of kicking the crap out of Hellboy once and unleashing a monster or two, Prince Nuada is really just a big-talking megalomaniac. The only truly intimidating thing about Nuada is his fighting skills, which really begins to make you feel ambivalent towards him after a while. That's a shame too, because Goss's performance is pretty good.

It's a funny coincidence that Hellboy II was released in the same summer as Iron Man and The Dark Knight. Because if those two movies are evidence that mainstream comic book movies can be viewed as having grown up, then Hellboy II can be viewed as evidence of their artistic potential as well. Guillermo Del Toro knows exactly what he's doing, as he uses all of the tools at his disposal to craft a great movie. I'll admit that there are a few flaws, but overall, the positives far outweigh the negatives. Hellboy II: The Golden Army is an entertaining piece of fantasy escapism that I can't help but like. So on my Five-Star Sutton Scale, I'm going to give it a solid four stars and a big thumbs up. It's definitely worth a watch.

Final Rating: ****