I skipped Neil Marshall’s Hellboy when it was released earlier this year. It was a fine example of a film that I probably would have seen, but I was scared off by the unrelenting tide of negative criticism that seemed to swamp the film. I have differed from critical dogpiles in the past, but something about this one swept me along: the promotion for the film did not excite in my any of the same kind of feelings I have for Guillermo del Toro’s two efforts with the same source material, despite my Stranger Things-inspired appreciation for one David Harbour.
Fast forward a few months, and I happened to catch de Toro’s Hellboy, from 2004, on TV the other evening, which prompted me to consider Marshall’s version again. Now available through streaming, it seemed to me apropos to give it a shot, when the financial hit was lessened, and the possibility of a night out being wasted in a cinema was past. The impression that steered me away earlier this year was of a film that was too into CGI, gore and supernatural action to truly get to the heart of the titular character: did this turn out to be a fair assessment, or did Marshall and Harbour actually manage to pull something off their their version of Anung Un Rama?
Hellboy (Harbour), a demonic creature brought to Earth by Nazi’s only to be raised by paranormal expert Trevor Bruttenholm (Ian McShane) leads the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defence, despite his blunt methods and difficult personality. When a plot to revive long vanquished witch Nimue (Milla Jovovich) is put into action by dark powers, Hellboy must travel to England, where a team including medium Alice (Sasha Lane) and shape-shifting Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim) must work together to prevent a viral apocalypse.
It only took a few seconds for Hellboy to piss me off a bit. Opening, much as del Toro did, with a flashback, it features McShane’s “Broom” narrating, in a bored voice, over a brief summation of Milla Jovovich’s Nimue getting dunked on by King Arthur and Merlin 1’500 years ago, in “the Dark Ages”, a period so named, Broom says, for “a fucking good reason”. He goes on to describe a raging Nimue as “pissed off” and refers to King Arthur as “that King Arthur” (described seconds later by actual characters as King Arthur, in a moment of truly shocking editing). From the outset then, Hellboy is displaying its faults: its risible edginess, its terrible script, its distracted cast, and the slapdash nature of its production. It is important to evaluate Hellboy on its own merits first, before we get into comparisons for the films that have come before. So, on its own merits, I can confidently state that 2019’s Hellboy is an awful misfire on just about every level.
Lets start with that edginess, the film’s insufferable efforts to constantly appear more mature, adult and outspoken than it has any right, or need, to, clinging to the “R” rating like a drowning man clinging to a life preserver. It’s evident in every bit of unnecessary profanity, in every inane rock song that booms through action sequences, in every sordid sexual quip and, most evidently, in every resort to truly epic levels of gore. You can hear the director and the writers practically screaming “This ain’t your Mama’s Hellboy!” To say that this is unappealing to those brought to the dance by del Toro is a serious understatement: this instead appears to have been inspired by the worst of the 1990’s emo-hero phase, the likes of The Crow or Spawn, etc.
In trying to differentiate themselves as much as they can from del Toro, the people behind this Hellboy have, intentionally or not, wondered into the realm of farce. Gone is the Lovecraftian feel, and in comes something altogether more grungy. The movie reads and sounds like it was made expressly for a 13-year-old demographic, and while the premise is inherently a bit goofy, if the film isn’t interested in taking itself in anyway seriously, then why the hell (ha!) should I? There is no real sense of seriousness or even stakes, even though the film is dealing with apocalyptic plot points. The story is basic, moving from a promising beginning where Hellboy investigates the paranormal in Tijuana (culminating in him having to fight a vampire luchador) into something very humdrum, a mission to go on, a team to be assembled, a doomsday to be stopped and a boring villain to be thwarted. The film simply never makes you care.
Other people not really taking things seriously are the cast, who generally deliver their lines from what seems like first takes. David Harbour gives this as good a shot as he can, layered underneath huge amounts of make-up, but really can’t get past the feeling that he’s essentially doing a Ron Perlman impression when he isn’t doing a Sheriff Hooper impression. He’s enthusiastic and a good enough actor to actually emote underneath the add-ons to his face, but I was never able to really connect with him in the way that you need to. The range here is anger to mopiness to anger to quips, and there is something workable in that, but it wasn’t worked with enough. His Hellboy whines too much, like a sullen teenager, in the worst possible way. Some will say this fits, but there’s a difference between sullen and conflicted.
The remainder are various shades of shockingly bad or obviously looking at their watches. McShane doesn’t belong in the picture, taking what should be a considered, caring character in Bruttenholm and turning him into demon-fighting Al Swearengen from Deadwood. Lane is caught between being a plot device and a somewhat implied love interest. Daniel Dae Kim performs like a man who signed up to the film too quick and now regrets it. Brian Gleeson plays Merlin, and inexplicably keeps his Irish accent. And Milla Jovovich is, well Milla Jovovich, an actress who, without meaning to sound hypercritical, checked out on the art of her profession sometime around the third or fourth Resident Evil sequel. Everyone gives off the unmistakable impression that they are killing time with every take. They were allegedly some issues on set, with reported walk-offs and principals re-writing their own lines during production, and boy does it show.
The project falls to pieces elsewhere as well, with much noted disputes between director and producers probably playing a part. As already stated, its editing at times seems strange, frenetic to a fault, with key plot points repeated and the visual action not matching narration. Basic scene-to-scene continuity lapses, most notably in an early scene with Hellboy talking on the phone even though the screen shows he hasn’t accepted the call yet. The script is a truly dreadful affair, full of the same kind of forced edginess that I have already described, and lacking any real indications of character, warmth or humour (one exception, when Harbour deadpans “Are you serious?” when asked for ID). The sole plot point that I found interesting, that of Nimue’s changeling henchmen – out for revenge on Hellboy because he’s the one who uncovered him posing as a human baby years ago – ends up with the character in question essentially being a disposable henchman. The musical score is forgettable (an early lucha libre set-scene, to a Spanish language version of The Scorpions’ “Rock You Like A Hurricane” is as good as it gets once you realise Motley Crue will be doing the necessaries elsewhere), and even the finer details, like Harbour’s get-up, is not actually all that inspiring.
Inevitably, we must also consider Hellboy’s relationship to what came before. Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy films were full of great scriptwork, great acting, great practical and (limited) computer effects and, most importantly of all, a great deal of what I can only call charm. That’s it really: they were charming movies, that presented an interesting blend of action and fantasy, bolstered by interesting character arcs. They presented a world I wanted to see more of, with figures I wanted to follow. They were crafted with care, they had depth, they had warmth. Give me Hellboy and Abe Sapien drunkenly crooning love songs any day (Different! Heartwarming! Interesting!).
2019’s Hellboy is the direct opposite. It is simply put that it is charmless: a blunt force object with little aptitude for, or maybe interest in, the presentation of an intriguing world with intriguing characters. Harbour’s Hellboy isn’t as likable as Perlman’s, and the supporting cast don’t measure up to Selma Blair or John Hurt. A “real” fantasy creature, be it demon or fairy, captures the imagination much better than the CGI monstrosities here. Worse, time and again Hellboy attempts to ape what came before even as it tries to distance itself: re-creating the origin story, Rasputin and all (though, with the very surprising, and welcome, intrusion of Thomas Haden Church’s Lobster Johnson), presenting a conflict between father and son, and in forming its ending around the possibility that Hellboy will live up to his infernal paternity, horns and fiery crown and all. In all respects, they are inferior efforts to copy better film-making and better story-telling.
Speaking more strictly on the visual, Marshall’s production, with Lorenzo Senatore in the cinematographer’s chair (who replaced Sam McCurdy, fired early), is nothing really all that special. There are numerous instances when the chosen frame rate does the action no justice – a fight between the titular character and three giants in the first act looks dreadful with that and the chosen angles – and the recourse to CGI heavy fantasy props is an unfortunate one. The English surrounds – by which I mean the Bulgarian surrounds, depicted as England – are at least unique for this level of production, but they become just background, bar the odd accent and dropping of stereotypical English slang (usually delivered by the Eastenders veterans).
When in doubt, Marshall goes for the red stuff, with Hellboy bathing in blood, most notably in an unpleasant montage late-on when monsters assault London. And let’s not linger too long as its methods of showing Alice channeling the recently deceased, a repulsive and visually lacking ectoplasm vomit sequence. I think the idea was for all of this to be a smoke screen, but it simply becomes another fault. Considering that Marshall is the man behind some of the more noteworthy episodes of Game Of Thrones, and has an established action pedigree, it is all the more surprising that Hellboy is as dull and pedestrian in that regard as it is.
Hellboy is a horrible disappointment. I don’t claim to know just how Marshall should have made a film that could top what came in 2004 and 2008 without just replicating it. But I will go as far as to suggest that the answer to that problem may simply have been to not to try. I would much rather get to say del Toro’s third installment of his own trilogy – now very much an impossibility I suppose – than have to suffer through efforts to continue the legacy like this. Marshall’s Hellboy lacks depth, is trying to appeal to a certain demographic way more than is good for it, has a cast that is directed poorly, and has action that is directed poorly. It’s a creatively lacking affair that is, speaking frankly, rather lazy in many aspects. Del Toro can rest easy: Hellboy is still his baby. Marshall’s changeling is not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Lionsgate).