Hellboy (Film Review)

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I’m a huge fan of both Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics and the two mesmerising films based on them, directed by renowned Mexican monster man Guillermo del Toro. Starring Ron Perlman as the titular anti-hero in a couple of career-best performances, del Toro’s films capture the otherworldly feel of Mignola’s iconic artwork, distilled through the director’s particular vision. While Hellboy II: The Golden Army saw del Toro diverge significantly from the source material, and let rip with his love for bizarre fairy-tale creatures and misunderstood monsters, it’s still a truly magical film, both in itself and as part of Big Red’s impressive canon.

Like any fan of that series, I’d been waiting for a greenlight on the third film of the intended trilogy. But after apparently heading in a direction that del Toro and Perlman weren’t happy with, the studio announced a reboot of the series in 2017, helmed by Brit horror director Neil Marshall and starring Stranger Things’ David Harbour in the title role. The script originally saw several drafts by Mignola himself, Christopher Golden, Aaron Eli Coliete, and Andrew Cosby, but apparently Golden and Coliete’s contributions barely made it into the final film, with Cosby now listed as the sole writer.

As much I’m enamoured with del Toro’s films, I didn’t bear a grudge against this new version. On paper, this seemed like it might be an interesting take on the character at the very least, with the calibre of the people involved and its talk of a distinctively bloodier, darker direction that still remained faithful to some of Mignola’s best story arcs, particularly The Wild Hunt, Darkness Calls, and The Storm and the Fury. I love Marshall’s work, which can best be described as grungy and hyper-violent, and his use of practical effects is admirable, from the taut black humour of Dog Soldiers, one of the best werewolf films I’ve seen, to the squirm-inducing claustrophobia of The Descent, and the more streamlined thrills of Ancient Roman chase film, Centurion. His most recent work has been largely in television, namely two excellent Game of Thrones episodes that combine a sense of bloody scale with Marshall’s signature style. David Harbour is also an interesting choice for the lead, one of those character actors who seems to crop up in so many cool supporting roles (his turn as a psychopath in A Walk Among the Tombstones springs immediately to mind), and one of the highlights of a certain 80s-saturated Netflix series.

Given the talent involved and my love of the source material, I went into this new Hellboy film with genuinely high hopes and little trepidation. There was no reason this should’ve turned out the way it did.

The film opens with a tepid exposition-dump of a prologue that tries to go all Sin City with its colour-punctuated black-and-white visuals, brimming with hellish dialogue and clunky narration from Ian McShane. The delivery of lines here manages the seemingly impossible task of making the already awful writing sound even worse. Immortal, evil, and motivationally-bereft witch, Nimue (Milla Jovovich), is dismembered by a King Arthur so wooden he makes Guy Ritchie’s 2017 film look like a subtle and evocative masterpiece. Her divorced body parts are subsequently hidden in separate locations around the world, and to the present we cut.

Surely, surely the rest of the film can’t be this bad, right?

Not exactly. While the rest of Hellboy’s seemingly eternal two hours don’t quite reach the depths of that opening’s singularly abysmal bar, it doesn’t climb much higher. What we can glimpse of the plot beneath the bulge of baffling tangents and endless character backstories involves a resurrected Nimue intent on seducing Hellboy into triggering the apocalypse, destroying humanity, and ushering in a new world for the downtrodden monsters and fairy-tale creatures that follow her. It’s a story we’ve not only seen a hundred times before, but one that was done so much better in both of del Toro’s previous Hellboy films.

Even the actual apocalypse Hellboy’s so instrumental to only lasts about two minutes, those world-crushing, people-mushing monstrosities barely taking up more screen-time than they did in the trailer, which is a waste of some of their genuinely original designs even if they don’t match the rest of the film’s aesthetics by a long shot. There’s simply no threat here, and you can’t have narrative tension without any discernible narrative.

This might be a bad film, but it isn’t David Harbour’s fault, who’s one of the few things that come close to actually working. His Hellboy is uglier and grumpier and less nuanced than Ron Perlman’s magnificent performance (and involves a lot more yelling), but he’s trying something different with the role, bringing his own sense of the demonic anti-hero, and that’s to be commended, even if the film he’s wading through feels as phoney as the mountains of viscera it keeps throwing up onscreen.

On paper at least the rest of the cast is impressive, with sweary British thesp Ian McShane seemingly perfect as Hellboy’s adoptive dad, Professor Broom. But even this usually dynamite actor phones in his performance, shouting his way through every scene as if he’s addressing a crowd of hearing-impaired senior citizens at a midday bingo session. Shasha Lane and Daniel Dae Kim, usually great additions to any cast, can’t seem to get past the sound of their frankly awful British accents or their wasted characters, as both written and cut.

Jovovich’s Nimue is a cardboard villain with little to no motivation for her formulaically world-ending scheme, and she rounds out the holy trinity of grating British accents that inexplicably populate the film. She comes across as a D-grade version of The Golden Army’s Prince Nuada – both nonhuman monsters bent on humanity’s destruction, but only the latter is written and portrayed with nuance and empathy.

And yeah, I know, constant comparison to the character’s previous cinematic incarnation – however superior – doesn’t exactly scream fair, but the truth is that even on its own merits, this Hellboy is a disaster. What makes things worse is that, occasionally, there are glimpses of what this could have been. There’s faint whiff of an interesting dynamic between Hellboy and his adopted dad, a much more calculating version of Broom than previously seen. It’s honestly great, too, to see aspects of the Mignola comics brought to life, like Hellboy’s flashback encounter with changeling fairy Gruagach, now a demented cockney pig-man bent on vengeance. The mostly practical effects used to bring him to life are impressive, but the execution renders everything around him both flat and garish at the same time. What makes this worse is that no single moment lingers long enough to have any kind of impact, one monster or action scene piled relentlessly on top of the other, any redeeming qualities drowned out by the sheer volume of blood and noise. Speaking of noise, every boring, gore-drenched action sequence is exacerbated by terrible song choices and Benjamin Wallfisch’s discordant deal-breaker of a “score”, which just adds to the genuine headache I ended up with by the time the credits started rolling.

But the blame for this garbage-fire might not lie solely on the shoulders of Marshall. The director was noticeably absent from the film’s publicity tour, and reportedly didn’t even attend Hellboy’s premier, due to apparent dissatisfaction over final cut and clashes with producers, who, among other instances of interference, apparently fired Marshall’s regular cinematographer, Sam McCurdy. Even without this knowledge, though, it’s clear that Hellboy is the unfortunate victim of the kind of studio-mandated hatchet job I haven’t seen since Suicide Squad or The Snowman, its narrative jumping from scene to backstory to bloodbath with barely a thread of coherence between them. Characters come and go, explaining more of the insensible plot before disappearing without notice or dying in a mist of poorly-rendered digital blood.

It feels like the studio executive in charge of this production was some mean-spirited, dead-eyed and deeply ordinary teenage boy who read the comics and saw the original films and thought they needed to be edgier, but wouldn’t know the meaning of the word edgy if it lobotomised him. You can just see him, sitting in his too-big high-rise office surrounded by cheap artwork and replica weapons, changing this plot point and smushing these action scenes together, masturbating furiously over every unnecessary splash of blood or ill-placed profanity. But running after Deadpool’s success screaming “fuck” and waving some severed limbs doesn’t make for a gritty or interesting or even fun film.

Ultimately, this is the studio’s fault. It’s bad enough that they didn’t let del Toro finish his trilogy because of financial cold feet. But then they orchestrate a pointless reboot that might actually turn out all right, hire a great bunch of people to make it, and then hogtie them right in the middle of proceedings. Neil Marshall clearly wasn’t given creative freedom to make the film he wanted or was even capable of, and the result is a tragic mess the filmmakers didn’t want and the audience didn’t enjoy. The only consolation is that this probably won’t make enough money to warrant the sequel they so clumsily try to bait in an epilogue as boring and unnecessary as every minute that came before.

So in the end, no one wins.

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