IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 120 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
517 A.D: The evil sorceress Nimue the Blood Queen tries to conquer the world with a deadly plague but is stopped by King Arthur, who slices her up with Excalibur and orders the body parts to be sent to five different corners of the land. The present day: the demon Hellboy works with his adoptive father Professor Broom at the B.P.R.D, an organisation devoted to investigating and generally exterminating paranormal threats to the public. When Hellboy’s help is requested at sister society the Osiris Club to help hunt down three dangerous giants, the surly superhero heads to England, where he soon becomes embroiled in the Blood Queen’s demonic plot to resurrect herself and bring ruin upon the world….
A film detailing the things that are supposed to have gone on during the shooting of this Hellboy would probably be better than the mess that’s obviously resulted from the likes of the director, star and producer rowing on set, the director going AWOL to spend time with a woman he was having an affair with, the screenplay being rewritten during filming, and so forth – though the fact that Hellboy creator Mike Mignola approved the original script but recently expressed regret at selling the rights ought to tell you all you need to know, including that the end product is considerably different from the original conception. While one questions the wisdom in bringing back to the screen a character and a world that, whatever one feels about the two Guillermo Del Toro films, obviously wasn’t that appealing to many cinema goers considering their lukewarm box office performances, it’s still possible to get behind the idea of a reboot that would be closer in tone to the comics which are darker and bloodier. But this barely coherent shambles of random plot strands, chaotic blurry action, bad jokes that you still sometimes laugh at but because of their badness not because they’re funny, fake looking CG splatter and mostly misjudged performances surely can’t have been what was intended. And there’s certainly nothing “gritty” about it despite what some claimed, unless “gritty” now means “gory” – though the high level of viscera ends up being one of the biggest problems because the moderate budget rarely allows for the stuff to look much good.
A beginning bit of exposition with cheeky narration and Sin City-style colouristion immediately gets things off on the wrong foot because it feels that a lengthy sequence has been drastically abridged and then they got Ian McShane say a few words over it. It’s nice to see the rarely used character of Nimue utilised, and interesting to see a dishonest, murderous King Arthur breaking a piece treaty, bringing the character closer to the one of legend who was a far more flawed person than you tend to see on screen, though what is up with this current movie obsession with Arthur, especially when audiences don’t seem to be much interested? But the film then repeats the same trick of showing us hasty bits of background information in flashback a few more times, the last two not seeming of much importance to proceedings, and the very last one coming across as being rather funny the way it seems to be thrown away. And a recreation of the Nazi experiment that unleashed Hellboy upon this earth shows in just a few shots how much flavour and care Del Toro [who opened his Hellboy with the same scene] gave to his productions, compared to Marshall who often seems as if he was more interested in making a rock video than an actual movie. Then, when we transition to modern times, it quickly becomes rather odd because the sight of Hellboy in public doesn’t seem to be that strange to patrons of a lucha libre wrestling match and a bar.
Hellboy is in Tijuana looking for a missing agent who challenges him to a fight in the ring. The resulting brawl ends with the agent turning out to a vampire and Hellboy having to kill him, after which he has go to London to join in a giant hunt. You may wonder what any of this has to do with the main story, and indeed I still do, but so much of the film is like this. I’m not familiar with the comics, but I get the impression that writer Andrew Cosby originally based his script on one major comic book story line and elements of others were added later by him or others, jam packing the film full of plot elements but giving hardly any of them enough time to breathe. And it’s patently obvious that the supposedly comic dialogue has been added very late in the proceedings, though did they really think that lines like: “is that my Uber”?, spoken by Hellboy as he’s about to pass out after battling the giants and glimpses a car coming, would do the film good? But it’s hard to know what to think with stuff like: “That’s the thing about sand, you can draw another line” [did George Lucas write this?] where it seems like they really did try to turn Hellboy into a bad movie. Or this classic exchange, spoken when one character uses a power we didn’t previously know about:”How’d you learn to do that”? “Ever since I’ve been little I’ve known how to do cool shit”.
After the giant fight which is probably the action highlight if rather too short, Hellboy’s boss Bruttenholm soon shows up after the carnage that’s resulted at the Osiris Club to inform him that someone has taken Nimue’s remains and is likely seeking the last piece there. This turns out to be Gruagach, a hog-like beast who has a beef with Hellboy over some past injustice, while Nimue has her own particular plans for Hellboy when she’s revived, though the various revelations and detouring really deserved two movies. Instead of Liz Sherman and Abe Sapien, Hellboy is assisted in his world-saving efforts by Alice Monaghan, a woman who was kidnapped by fairies as a child and is therefore now a medium, and Ben Daimio who can turn into a jaguar, but Sasha Lane and Daniel Dae Kim fail to pull off convincing English accents, and what with Milla Jovavich also not doing very well in this department either nor Emma Tate doing the voice of a creature called the Baba Yaga who talks with a Spanish accent, one wonders why they just didn’t make everybody American. Milla is especially curious in this film. She seems to be giving five different performances for one character whom she just doesn’t seem to know how to play, though at least she seems to be having fun. I believe that David Harbour has been largely praised as Hellboy. Indeed, if you forget Ron Perlman, he’s not bad, but seems understandably confused as to whether to perform the part more for gravitas or laughs. His facial makeup makes him look more evil and the scruffier overall look is also an improvement, but the character just comes across as an idiot most of the time. Of course he’s no longer allowed to smoke cigars.
The decision to ditch Del Toro’s ‘beauty and the beast’ angle is understandable to make this film different, but leaves the film with little heart. Yes, Hellboy has his adoptive dad, but there’s little sense of a real relationship between father and son, and the character’s inner torment is mostly ignored. For the most part feeling is drowned out by noise and movement as Hellboy battles other monstrosities while the camera never stays still for a second so the action becomes a eye-hurting blur, very obvious rock songs play, and gore is continuously thrown at you. Yes, we get to see bodies ripped apart, skin pulled off a face, and other sights which may delight the really easy to please gore hound, but it matters little when it mostly looks so crap. I initially wondered at the suitability of the ’15’ certificate, but after a while came to the conclusion that the BBFC were right in their decision. There are some decent practical effects in there, but they’re drowned out by the endless CGI – but then we live in a time where it’s considered that the more CGI the better, no matter how it looks. This really weakens some rather impressive creature designs, especially towards the end of the film where, despite the employment of some inventive camera angles to try to make things seem larger scale than they are, one wonders why on earth they attempted to carry out such big sequences with not nearly enough money to do them justice.
In terms of Marshall’s films this sometimes feels surprisingly close to Doosmday, though it has a few more original ideas [not difficult]. But he doesn’t seem very engaged with the material here and, despite everything that’s going on, the whole film only has one genuinely striking moment when a house on thin, bird-like legs emerges out of a fog. It’s atmospheric, surreal and unsettling. Saying that, it does appear that Marshall was overruled by producers very often on this project so we can’t at all totally blame him. Studio interference invariably makes a film worse and only sometimes makes it do better at the box office, but these idiots never learn. Is this Hellboy still fun in a trashy way? I guess you could say that it is if you’re in the right frame of mind, and if watched at home with some booze in hand it may come off better, but at the cinema it’s a mostly tiring, numbing experience – though of you go in expecting something on the level of a Resident Evil or Underworld episode then the result probably won’t be too painful. One perhaps shouldn’t compare it too much to the Del Toro films as it tries fairly hard to be different to those and was less expensive to make, but there’s no doubt that they’re superior products in every way even if you forget about money. One shouldn’t want a film to do badly, but isn’t it kind of funny that Del Toro’s third film was rejected because the first two didn’t make enough money, and yet this rather shoddy, shabby effort which they decided to make instead also seems to be doing badly. That’s karma.