Movie Review - Hellboy (2019)
It’s not horrible. Per se.
In some ways, much like what I had to say regarding X-Men: Dark Phoenix, it really seems to be that nerd culture needs to calm the fuck down. No, the new Hellboy is not as visually stunning as Guillermo del Toro’s two prior films in the series, but Neil Marshall has delivered some damn fine horror movies in the past: The Descent parts 1 & 2 and Dog Soldiers come quickly to mind…and really deserves the benefit of the doubt here. In addition, well, we’ve got the ugly head of producer/studio interference poking into this film too.
That sounds ranty. I’m getting ranty early here. Let’s start at the beginning.
So, today we’re looking at the recent Hellboy reboot that bombed at the box office, pulling in only $41 million against at budget of at least $50 million (once again not likely counting the marketing budget, so the damage was likely worse than what’s seen here). Plot? I gotcha covered.
A half-human, half-demon supernatural agent, code-named Hellboy, is loaned from the United States’ BPRD (Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense) to the UK’s M11 in an effort to stop the dreaded Blood Queen, a witch from Arthurian times who seeks to vanquish mortals via plague and her demonic hordes…because…um…reasons? Stopped in those ancient days only by her dismemberment at the hands of Arthur and his famed Excalibur, plans have been put in motion for her resurrection. As the only one capable of stopping her, the question lingers in everyone’s mind: which side will Hellboy choose, his demonic side or his human?
It’s really difficult to do…but you have to try and take this film on its own merits. David Harbour takes a little getting used to as Hellboy, but by the end of the film the horns seem to fit. Milla Jovovich vamps it up for her role as the Blood Queen and is serviceable as the antagonist. Sasha Lane as Alice is a capable sidekick but…meh. Daniel Dae Kim is a dick for most of the movie as Daimio and then he isn’t and I’m not really sure as to why the change. His performance is also fine. The standout here though is the Queen’s lackey, Gruagach, voiced by Stephen Graham who is thoroughly entertaining throughout. This boar-headed monster has his own grudge against Hellboy and Graham does a great job oscillating from humor to rage and back again all the while eliciting some sympathy when the audience should indeed know better. And, if I’m to be positive about the film itself, I would say that if this were split up into three episodes as the pilot of a Hellboy TV series or streaming series, I’d be singing a LOT more praises.
But, it’s a feature film.
This is the part where I sharpen my knives.
The fact that this does indeed feel more like a pilot presentation with three episodes edited together instead of a cohesive whole story is a big strike against it. A number of twists and turns within the film would work GREAT in an episodic nature but within a feature film, it just feels like too much and an almost sort of plot whiplash starts to kick in after the third or fourth turn. Another thing that would make it great for TV but not so great for a feature film is the overabundance of CG. Yes, I know, I might sound a bit hypocritical for praising a film that was mostly CG in Aquaman…but even with that film, they understood that you need some practical effects to help disguise the CG ones. Hellboy does almost none of that, relying almost solely on CG…which is a shame because given Neil Marshall’s films that I mentioned earlier, they did exceptional practical effects…so he’s a director that can handle it and really make it shine. The sheer saturation of visual effects of varied quality simply makes it difficult to take the film all that seriously. What exacerbates this problem is that, well, you ARE coming after two exceptional films done by an extremely visionary director in Guillermo del Toro. To go from two films that were breathtaking to look at to this…look, I understand that in some ways it’s not fair to compare the two but come on…those two earlier films were made back in 2004 and 2008…and this movie couldn’t even approach those levels of effects? Sigh.
But, again, I really can’t force myself to lay ANY blame at the feet of Neil Marshall…for a few reasons. It doesn’t take much of a Google search to find a fair amount of articles describing the troubled production. Producers seemingly took every opportunity to undermine the director, such as firing Marshall’s usual cinematographer in the middle of filming or providing additional direction to actors…sometimes contradicting what Marshall wanted out of the scene. This would be bad enough, but then you hear about the script being constantly rewritten (which I can’t help but thing was a product of additional producer meddling) and friction between Marshall and star Harbour when the latter would get upset that the former wanted additional takes. Honestly though, there’s one thing at the very root of this film’s inception that I want to cover and do a deep dive on.
Did Mike Mignola and Guillermo Del Toro have a fight or something?
In watching the behind the scenes featurettes on the blu-ray, the phrase you hear the most is “more like the comics” or some variation thereof. “We wanted to better reflect what was in the comics.” And a fair amount of time, it’s Mignola saying it. So…was there some sort of tiff between the two? I mean, it almost seems catty. When comparing this incarnation to the previous two by Del Toro, well, you can see who wins…easily. The reason I wanted to highlight this is because it highlights something that anyone who sees something they love be adapted to a different medium is prone to…but is especially heightened in nerd culture: the refusal to allow for adaptation. I know I’ve had this ‘comic shop argument’ before…in my particular case regarding Transformers…but it almost seems like Mignola is trying to have this same argument with Del Toro in what appears to be the most passive aggressive way possible…and…well, again, comparing the end products, Mignola ends up being dead wrong. Comics and film are different media…or, if you take storyboards into account, then you could say that comics are the starting point for film, but, as anyone can plainly see, comics deal with sequential still pictures while film deals with motion, texture, sound, depth…many more dimensions than the small team behind a comic book have to consider. And maybe it’s this disconnect that helps inform why these two versions of Hellboy are so different: GDT’s films have a craftsman like quality while the current iteration feels rushed (not unlike a writer/artist rushing to meet a deadline). It’s clear that the original films were inspired by Mignola’s material, but then run through GDT’s brain-filter and when you look at said films, they fit perfectly in GDT’s oeuvre. That’s adaptation, that’s translation…that’s what happens in this process of bringing a comic book to screen. This must’ve miffed Mignola somehow…and given the final product that we did get in this iteration, you can’t help but wonder how far along in the process he stayed on board. Did he provide input on the rewrites? Did he look in on the effects work? I have to admit, I want to say probably not. It almost seems similar to Geoff Johns’ promo work for the ill-fated (but damn it, I liked it!) 2011 Green Lantern movie. And just like in that case, well, look, I understand wanting (or needing) to hype up a film based on a creation that you’re known for…but…man, taste the pudding before you go offering it to others.
There’s one last thing I want to bring up and it’s the film’s different take on world-building, which, to be honest, I wasn’t particularly keen on. You see, the Del Toro films took the time to build Hellboy’s world in the first film then dive into the larger, even more fantastical world outside of that in the second. Viewers, being new to the world, needed to know what the BPRD was, why they were needed, who Professor Broom was, who/what/why is Hellboy…so on and such...before then entering into a wider world of ogres, fairies, elfs and other fantasy elements. For a reboot, well, the new film fails in this. Utterly. It tries to do the opposite, fling Hellboy out into the wider world and then explain everything else in medias res. So, instead of explaining what the BPRD is, we end up just tossing Hellboy overseas to England to help them with a case. Sure, there’s the story potential there for ‘fish out of water’ mechanics and all that, but if we’re starting fresh, we need to have a solid foundation…and this new Hellboy never really gives us that.
While I opened this review suggesting that viewers take this new Hellboy on its own merits, well, I don’t want to sound harsh and say that there need to be merits there to begin with…but given the TV pilot nature of the final version we were given, it’s almost impossible to ignore that films made 15 and 11 years ago (respectively) look much better. If this film was indeed a TV pilot, then I’d happily recommend it and likely be into the series that followed. Thus, there ARE things to like here. But as a film and as a reboot, this film does fail and, even worse, in listening to the supplemental material, you almost get the feeling that this might have been a bit of a vanity project for the character’s creator, Mike Mignola, in some way miffed by the previous incarnation. Needless to say, production woes certainly didn’t help either. If you go into this with low expectations, and given all the press and reviews on the film, this is probably the mindset you’re going in with, it’s a decent enough 2 hours. You’re not gonna lament the time you spent watching it…but it’s also a film you’re likely never going to revisit. But if you’re a fan of the character or of the previous two films…you might want to stay away from this one.