To give credit where it is due, I am more than a little delighted that Hancock, the new reshoot-blighted Will Smith superhero vehicle, has brought back that old-fashioned high concept summer movie like we used to get all the time in the '80s and '90s. Nowadays, "summer popcorn movie" is just another way of saying "comic book adaptation" most of the time, so even though Hancock has a comic-like concept - it is a superhero film, after all - it feels somewhat mid-'90s in execution. Almost like the script by Vincent Ngo and X-Files vet Vince Gilligan had been floating around, unproduced, for a decade. Which it had been.

In the film, Smith plays John Hancock, a crabby alcoholic vagrant living in a trailer on the hills outside Los Angeles. He's also a superman, able to fly and pick up cars and stop trains with his fist, and so he fights crime and saves the innocent and all those wonderful things, except that his drunkenness and general disregard for other people means that his "heroics" tend to be many orders of magnitude more destructive than the crises he's stopping. Hoping to restore himself to the Angelinos' good graces, he teams up with a PR specialist named Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), over the objections of Ray's wife Mary (Charlize Theron). I should mention that the other thing that really delighted me about Hancock is that we finally get to see Bateman and Theron together, and if you don't know why I said "finally", then I have some homework for you.

Conceptually, the basic idea of a superhero who's an asshole that nobody likes is actually promising, although the idea that he would go to a PR maven to remake his image sounds rather mustily like late-'90s post-modernism. But concept turns out to be all that Hancock has going for it; the movie feels like they shot the story treatment without ever bothering to turn it into a screenplay. Most of the scenes, in the first third especially, exist to establish one story beat, and they provide virtually no other function, and as a result the film is full of empty patches: not plot-holes exactly, but spots where it seems we aren't getting a full movie. Questions about, like "why did Hancock start fighting crime in the first place?" and "what makes him take up Ray's offer?" and "how long has Los Angeles despised him?" In fact, the only character who seems fully rounded at the end of the movie is Ray, and then only because he's defined primarily in terms of clichés.

That said, the first 50 minutes of the movie are more or less successful for what they're trying to be, a funny action movie that doesn't withstand much scrutiny, largely thanks to Smith's immense appeal as a performer. Hancock is hardly his best role, but within a very limited range, the actor nails the character's sarcasm and pissiness, and even though we never come close to knowing who Hancock is, at least we laugh with him more often than not. Not to mention that Bateman remains a fine straightman, getting pretty much the only dry comedy in the script and making it click. If Hancock never rose above the general quality of its opening hour, it would be a serviceable time-waster, if hardly a classic alongside Men in Black.

The thing is, there's a twist right about the one-hour mark, and it's actually quite easy to see it before it comes, but that doesn't make it any stupider of a twist, and the details surrounding it are so bugfuck crazy that it seems impossible the screenplay was written, let alone greenlit. The time has come for me to announce that the next paragraph is one big SPOILER:

Mary, we find out, is also a superbeing, and she knew the amnesiac Hancock back when. This isn't a surprise at all; anyone who has ever seen a movie knows from Theron's first reaction shot that she has a history with Hancock. That doesn't make it un-stupid, but at least we're prepared. What we surely couldn't be prepared for is the fact that she and Hancock are both millennia-old, the last members of a race of superbeings who apparently inspired all of the world's myths, and who are destined to fall in love with each other over and over again throughout history, even though they will lose their powers if they ever end up near each other. I have a strong suspicion that I just made all of that seem much less terrible than it is in the film. There are probably interesting directions this could be taken, but within the film the character mythology is nigh-unto incoherent, and inconsistent not only with itself but with virtually any mythological system in Western history. It is shockingly inept storytelling, completely destroying the film's existing conflicts and pushing Hancock from "superhero" movie to My Super Ex-Girlfriend 2. I repeat myself: I have no idea how this was greenlit. Spoilers end.

Trying to keep this crazy-quilt from flying off the rails completely is director Peter Berg. Five films into his career, Berg's reputation as a creator of quality entertainment hangs rather tenuously on Friday Night Lights, and nothing else. That film is of course a small-scale depiction of life in the outer reaches of Texas, not a giant summer tentpole, and Berg doesn't prove to have previously-untapped tentpole-directing skills that none of us would have expected. Other than a shocking reliance on hand-held cameras, Hancock is made without any hint of personality, with every shot following the Hollywood journeyman handbook note for note: here there is a close-up to establish pathos, here there is a cut timed to maximize comedy, here there is a track in to a relevant detail. Anybody could have directed this film, and it would have been no worse. And it certainly could have been a whole lot better with somebody behind the wheel who might have been able to do something - anything at all! - with that terrible third act.

But what does any of this matter - it's going to make pots of money, and that is all that Columbia pictures cares about. As a popcorn movie, though, it absolutely fails to meet any minimum threshold for quality or craftsmanship; it's naught but a money-producing machine, and about as distasteful as that description makes it sound.