MARSHALL, Neil, “Hellboy”, Summit Entertainment/Millennium Media/Lawrence Gordon-Lloyd Levin Productions/Dark Horse Entertainment, 2019.
The problem with re-boots is that they spend an inordinate amount of time going over territory that has been done before. In these comic-book adaptations with super-powered beings, inevitably we have to sit through the “origin story” of our hero yet again and invariably it drags the entire proceedings down. A case in point is any irruption of the Batman franchise – how many times do we need to see Bruce Wayne’s parents get gunned down in a back alley? In some ways, it has to be incorporated but frankly, re-boots, by definition, cater for those who are already au fait with the material. It’s a poison chalice for anyone who chooses to take on one of these juggernauts.
This being said, I don’t understand why a re-boot can’t just springboard off the work of those gone before. In del Toro’s take on Hellboy, he gave us everything we could’ve asked for in an origin story and all before the opening credits; here, Neil Marshall wastes inordinate amounts of screen-time on a pastiche of that prior sequence – adding nothing new apart from introducing a few third-string characters needed later in the story – and coasting along on del Toro’s coat-tails. For my money, it would have served them better to not include the sequence at all – referencing it in some other way – rather than staging a poor puppet show of the previous director’s material.
I have to acknowledge right away that I liked del Toro’s prior two films very much. I am also a huge fan of Mike Mignola’s work in the various Dark Horse titles that crowd the comic store bookshelves. For my money, del Toro captured much of the sublety of Mignola’s work and in this iteration a lot of that nuance gets hived off and replaced with a bunch of goofiness. I’m aware that del Toro and Mignola had a falling-out while this film was in production. I think it’s a shame that it happened – whatever the reasons – but this film doesn’t do much, to my way of thinking, to bring the source material to life in a meaningful sense.
Any vehicle of this nature has a series of boxes which need to be ticked in order for it to meet fan expectations. Half-breed scion of Hell? Check. Esoteric organisations with sinister hidden agendas? Check. BPRD agents with mystical powers ready for some biff? Check. All of this is taken into account here, but it should be more than just making a list – it’s how it’s done that amounts to a polished product. Again, del Toro created the template for how to do it; it seems that Marshall decided to toss that out with the trash.
Let’s get to specifics. If you’ve read a “Hellboy” comic, you’ll know that it’s all about tone. Hellboy himself is a somewhat ludicrous character – he looks outrageous, but there he is, chatting with mystics, talking to townsfolk, strategizing with agency operatives. It looks crazy, but it works. That’s because, everything happening in the narrative is extra dark and menacing. Evil in Mignola’s stories is pervasive and brooding, lurking in the background and often only detected by a beat in the timing, sometimes with a whispered “Hellboy” in a dark panel. Mignola’s tales often erupt into a fury of violence at the end, but everything else is stillness and silence.
The character of Hellboy himself contains this quality. He is gumshoe-detective stolidness wrapped up in a tough-as-nails outré exterior – he is essentially unflappable. Sure, sometimes the implications of what he discovers take him by surprise but, equally, these things tend only to make him cranky. A flustered Hellboy is a rare thing indeed; in fact, even in those moments where Destiny drags him onto a course that he’d rather avoid, he often only seems to be bemused.
Contrast this to David Harbour’s portrayal of the character. He flinches; he sputters; he ducks and dodges. He flails about in confusion. The scene where he steps out of the van in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and one of the assembled troops takes a shot at him, not realizing he’s an ally, is good for laughs, but it’s not Hellboy. This is not a character who waves his arms about while screaming; he’s just too cool for that kind of crap. What makes Hellboy appealing to his fans, is that he’s multi-faceted, nuanced; this film takes just one element of the character and dials up the volume, thereby losing everything that makes him interesting.
And it’s not just Hellboy who gets this treatment: Professor Bruttenholm and Nimue also get boiled down to essentials and played as one-note entities. Ian McShane seems to be everyone’s go-to guy for playing mystical masterminds lately – after “American Gods” – but this portrayal is worlds away from John Hurt’s version of the character in the del Toro flick, a version arguably closer to the original concept. Here, Bruttenholm is the avenging warrior, using Hellboy as his ultimate weapon in the war against evil with no time to play the supportive parent; in del Toro’s film, we had both, tinged with regret and remorse. Even the character’s name was all over the place: long-time readers know that ‘Bruttenholm’ is pronounced ‘Broom’, in the same way that a bunch of other fancy English names contain more letters than necessary, like ‘Featherstonehaugh’, or ‘Auchinleck’, or ‘Menzies’*. In this film the name wanders all over the place in terms of how it’s written and how it’s pronounced – just pick one people! It’s not hard.
Speaking of go-to actors, Milla Jovovich seems to be the actor of choice when it comes to supernatural super-powered beings. As Nimue here, she does a serviceable job and even manages to bring a little extra-dimensionality to the character, but it flips on and off like a switch, not really growing out of anything or leading anywhere in particular. She says she loves Hellboy, but does she really? Really? There’s plenty of tears and longing looks but equally there’s plenty of arbitrary backstabbing and viciousness. It’s there, but it isn’t sold.
There were nice inclusions in this film that are mainstays of the comics but have been overlooked in the past (although I’m betting del Toro was eager to address them). Lobster Johnson is a kooky and spooky bit part in the stories who lends a sense of time and place to the narratives and, of course, Baba Yaga is crucial to Hellboy’s backstory. Their inclusions here – again – felt like someone in the background just ticking boxes to rope in content for their iteration of the franchise, although Baba Yaga was well done and stands as a good example of how those layers of latex can be pushed through in order to obtain a resonant performance.
Finally, let’s discuss the other main characters essential to the plot – Alice Monaghan and Agent Ben Daimio. I have to admit that my engagement with the source material has been lacklustre of late so I’m unsure if Alice is a canon character**; regardless, she stacks up well here and is a good representative of the sort of individual who ends up as a BPRD grunt. Daimio however, shows again that a good, nuanced character can be simply ground down to nubbish essentials by scriptwriters keen to cram in as much content as possible. There’re so many layers to this character that it was almost inevitable that much of what makes him interesting – and there’s a lot – would just fall by the wayside, leaving us with a ‘were-jaguar with attitude’ and little else.
The look of this movie owes more to Monty Python than to the comics. That sounds harsh, but the initial sequence with the Lodge of Osiris upper-class twits had me rolling my eyes somewhat. It seems ludicrous that they would dress up as medieval knights – complete with horned helmets – in order to hunt down marauding giants conducting genocidal mayhem in the New Forest. Surely, given the massacre of innocents involved, they would use something more apropos, like rocket-launching helicopters and automatic weaponry? And yet we get the Knights Who Say “Ni!”. Spare me.
The giants themselves looked like the products of someone who grew up on a steady diet of Games Workshop material. With all their funky weapons and fashionable accoutrements, they looked like something from a “Warhammer 40K” catalogue, rather than something out of a Hellboy book. Overall the effects were more ‘creaky’ than ‘special’, with more than one instance of a matte job looking a bit shifty.
I started this review determined to not get into a compare-and-contrast routine along the lines of ‘Perlman is better that Harbour; del Toro is better than Marshall’ because – it has to be said – both franchises have their downsides. It’s hard to make someone look like Hellboy and then have them convey a dynamic, nuanced performance, and these narratives are all about the nuance. It’s hard to take the Faery lore and legendry of the comics and reproduce them convincingly in a Real World setting. This iteration has a pared-back, over-produced sheen while simultaneously trying to cram in as much as possible from the source material and it doesn’t always work. The emphasis here is on gore, foul language and violence, rather than anything else, and the R-rating is well-earned, although it does feel a bit indulgent more than occasionally. That’s fine though: if all the producers wanted to do was make a beer-and-pizza yuck-fest – and there are elements of that in the source material – then great. Go your hardest. But that’s just one tiny element of a greater whole, which is completely lacking in this do-over. Will someone please turn this concept into a TV show already? We’re ready for the long haul.
Three Tentacled Horrors from me.
*They’re pronounced “Fanshaw”, “Affleck” and “Ming-giss”, for those interested.