He was troubled before it was trendy

Times Staff Writer

Will SMITH looked desperate. Not Smith specifically, of course: the alcoholic, deeply depressed superhero he was playing on the “Hancock” set last summer.

In a squalid Hollywood Boulevard liquor mart well past midnight, Smith’s John Hancock was thisclose to falling off the wagon. As he sorted through the possible poisons -- Thunderbird and Night Train wouldn’t lend their brown-bag brands to the production, so the film’s art department filled the store’s shelves with fake labels, like Pap Smear Vodka -- Hancock stumbled upon a store robbery. He could either drink his problems away or toss a bad guy through a refrigerator. What do you think Smith’s character was going to do?

As easy as that answer might be, “Hancock’s” journey to theaters (the film opens July 2) wasn’t always so obvious. Although a few of this summer’s tent-pole movies came together remarkably fast, Smith’s latest action movie follows years of false starts -- the plug once was pulled just eight weeks before filming was to commence -- with some of the delays stemming from the film’s often dark tone.



Adecade ago, when superheroes were battling colorful villains and not their own demons, the “Hancock” script posited that a crime fighter’s personal struggles could be dramatically compelling. “It was always ahead of the curve,” says producer Akiva Goldsman. “And now the curve finally caught up with it. What was so interesting about the screenplay was there never was a bad guy.”

Since “Hancock” was initially developed by the long-defunct Artisan Entertainment, it has passed through numerous potential directors (Michael Mann, Jonathan Mostow, “The Pursuit of Happyness’ ” Gabriele Muccino), infinite rewrites and even a few name changes (the project was originally called “Tonight, He Comes”).

The latter title hinted at a sexual double-entendre that since has been toned down, but the heart of “Hancock” still remains unusual popcorn season fare. As imagined by “Kingdom” director Pete Berg, screenwriters Vince Gilligan and Vy Vincent Ngo and producer Goldsman, Hancock starts the film as an amnesiac who has no recollection of what he once was capable of doing. The populace knows only what they see for themselves, and it’s not pretty. A bottle always nearby, Hancock flies the way Lindsay Lohan sometimes drives: under the influence.

“He ends up causing millions of dollars of damage whenever he goes out, even if it’s just to get a purse snatcher,” Berg says.

With his former admirers having deserted him and even kids bad-mouthing his deeds, Hancock saves the life of public relations executive Ray Embry (Jason Bateman), who wants to repay the debt by giving Hancock a hero-worship makeover.

But it is Embry’s wife, Mary (Charlize Theron), who offers a more provocative twist on Hancock’s future: She’s not only stunning, but also has her own gifts. Initially dismissive of Hancock, Mary eventually is drawn to him. “Let’s say they develop a very complicated and problematic attraction toward each other,” Berg says, careful not to give away too much.


“It’s a pretty unique blend of comedy and drama,” he says, adding that it’s “been a challenge” to strike the right balance between the two. “But that’s why we were all attracted to the movie.”