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By Josh Moss [email protected]

More than a decade ago, Will Smith owned the Fourth of July weekend. It started with 1996's Independence Day. Then came Men In Black a year later. Now, he's back as the star of Hancock, a superhero movie that should have no problem standing up to recent hits such as Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. Robert Downey Jr. took superhero acting to the next level as Iron Man, and, thankfully, Smith keeps the bar at that same level. And he has a blast doing it.

Vincent Ngo wrote the original script in the mid-1990s, and it floated around Hollywood for years. Luckily, it took long enough to land Smith the lead. He plays John Hancock, not the one who signed the Declaration of Independence, but a loser who fires snot rockets from his nostrils, downs bottles of whiskey and passes out on city benches. But he's not the homeless guy he looks to be. Far from it. Hancock can fly and lift cars off the ground with his pinky. Bullets ricochet off his skin.

Director Peter Berg, who gave us some shaky camera action in The Kingdom last year, is at the helm, and he kicks things off on a morning when a group of police cars chase a thug-filled SUV down a Los Angeles highway. (Though Bergs camera is a little steadier this time around, some shots are still nauseating.) Hancock, begrudgingly, soars to the scene bottle of bourbon still in hand.

The reason this film works so well is because Smith enjoys playing the alcoholic superhero so much. He pairs his beanie and shades with ungroomed facial hair. When he walks, his drunken wobble is a bit too realistic. Honestly, it's sort of refreshing to see a profane low-life with super powers whom the public hates. Some in Los Angeles even want to ship Hancock to New York because every time he fights crime he causes, oh, about $9 million in damages. Even Nancy Grace barks her opinion.

Enter Ray, played by Jason Bateman (Juno). He's the Bono of PR, who wants to save the world. Eventually, he hooks up with Hancock to do some image consulting. You know, help him perfect his post-flight landing and maybe get him to trade his tattered duds for a slick uniform. All we'll say is that Ray's wife Mary (played by the always-reliable Charlize Theron) is not simply occupying space so Hancock can experience some sexual tension. After agreeing to serve some time in prison, Hancock soon returns to the streets. Think he's a better man? Whether he is or not, he has some new enemies.

Thats the gist of it. Some viewers will no doubt want a better explanation about Hancock's past. What we do get seems contrived, like a way to force out his weakness. And we simply can't believe that Hancock could switch from vulgar to watery-eyed in a matter of moments. Also, Rays PR goals probably eat up too much screen time.

Unlike most superhero movies, though, Hancock's plot doesnt rest on an end-of-the-world catastrophe. Avoiding that cliche in itself is pretty cool, though some moviegoers could complain about a lack of a serious threat. Even the villains, for instance, don't seem as evil or powerful as, say, the robots in Wall-E. But this one, really, isn't about the special effects or the twisted criminals. It's about a troubled man who drinks too much, spits out too many cuss words and maybe, just maybe, is ready to turn his life around. We'd pay to watch Smith portray that character any day.

3 fleurs de lis out of 4

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