Jul 2, 2008 at 12:00 am

Casting one of the world's most bankable stars as a grubby, foul-mouthed, alcoholic anti-social hero is downright subversive by summer blockbuster standards. So it's too bad the writing wasn't up to standard, which required all of Will Smith's superhuman charm to attempt a rescue.

Hancock is a premise in search of a movie. Long in development, the final script feels like it has been tweaked and poked to death by multiple torturers, and indeed it's had more hands on it than Tila Tequila at a block party.

Smith is Hancock, a reluctant, mysterious, indestructible crime fighter who often does as much property damage as he prevents, and a perpetual grump going through the motions of superheroics like a guy who hates his job. In a typically reckless display, he manages to derail a barreling freight train, but fortunately the poor sap he saves turns out to be a publicist in search of a new client. Ray (Jason Bateman) sees dollar signs in sprucing up Hancock's lousy image, but in a truly sci-fi twist, the PR man also sees it as his chance to make the world a better place.

Soon enough Ray's got our man scrubbed, detoxed and trying out slick new super suits, no matter how "homo looking" they are. The plan is running smoothly, and so's the movie, with big action and bigger laughs. Then, about an hour in, there's a twist, one that explains why Ray's wife Mary has been aggressively eyeballing Hancock, which muddies up the waters with a needlessly confusing mythology.

From here on the flick stumbles awkwardly to the finish, never clear whether it wants to be edgy action, slapstick or heart-tugging drama. It's also surprisingly crass for this kind of fare, with language and violence that gives the PG-13 rating the best workout it's had in years. It's hard to damn a movie for being too smart or ambitious, especially in a genre that could use more of both, but something here never gels, and director Peter Berg's gritty realistic style is out of place.

Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].