The film opens by introducing us to dark sorceress Nimue [Jovovich] who unleashes a plague on England until she is eviscerated by King Arthur and her body buried across the land. The story then jumps ahead to the present day and we meet Hellboy [Harbour], a powerful, cynical, red demon hybrid named Anung Un Rama who files down his horns to better fit in with humanity. And this is where the synopsis gets tricky. From here we flit about between the BPRD (an agency keeping paranormal threats at bay), the secretive Osiris Club hunting giants, a man-pig-fairy searching for Nimue’s body parts, a medium who has a history with Hellboy and M11 agent Ben Daimio [Daniel Dae Kim] who is concealing a terrible secret… which is hardly hidden considering it’s used in all the trailers and from his scarring and constant serum injections alone, is apparent he has some sort of transformative power; but I digress. Hellboy receives instruction from his adoptive father, Professor Bruttenholm [McShane], that if Nimue is to rise again, it would mean the end of the world and only Hellboy can avert such a fate.
The existence of Del Toro’s< a href="http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0167190">Hellboy films is a major issue for this movie. As with all reboots, one assumes that from a pre-production perspective, discussions must have been had about how to approach the story considering the cinematic and published versions are well known to the key demographic but a non-entity to cinema audiences at large. The conclusion they reached was for the plot to gloss over many origin aspects, making the assumption that you are either familiar with what came before or as an attempt to capture that episodic vignette structure of the comics but either way, it leaves the pacing and character arcs feeling disjointed and erratic.
The whole thing has an air of The Mummy remake to it; taking a fan-favourite series, stripping all the fun out of it, adding a darker tone, utilising a very generic attack on London and ultimately producing something that fails to please critics or audiences. As with The Mummy (and the whole misfiring of Universal’s premature Dark Universe), Hellboy feels like the studio’s fingerprints are deeply impressed into every facet. The pacing is terrible, causing the narrative to race and rush along manically, the action is edited to an amazingly sloppy degree and the CGI is extremely ropey at times, ranging from atmospheric (like Baba Yaga’s chicken-legged house stepping out of the fog) to laughably bad (without spoiling too much, a mucusy spectral vision of a dead character at the end of the film). I also felt the song cues were badly selected and while Benjamin Wallfisch is a very adroit composer, capable of creating wonderfully creepy mood-setting pieces (A Cure For Wellness comes to mind), the thematic stings felt intrusive and unnecessarily bombastic. Which is actually a pretty good comparative metric for the entire creative process this film undertook; overly aggressive in its execution of the “r-rated” toy box contents, deploying lazy uses of swearing, gore, violence and a handful of other sophomoric tropes – all of which you become desensitised to quite quickly. All of which is made more baffling when you take into account that Neil Marshall is far from a bad director, producing two genuinely great films in Dog Soldiers and The Descent.
With the technical aspects being so irregular, it’s almost impressive that the only constant from start to finish is how poor the script work is, bordering on insultingly dumb. The core elements of what make a Hellboy story are there, rich folk-lore inspirations, conspiracies, demons, secret societies and ancient orders but they are largely present in name only and heavily weighed down by a mire of clean, sometimes nonsensical resolutions and humour that misses the mark seemingly every time. Evident from the first teaser trailer, the dialogue is painful and ill-fitting for the casting choices made. Harbour is relegated to tired, hammy jokes and awkward quips, Jovovich is assigned the unenviable to task of expositing with every scene, Dae Kim feels like he’s building to a tonal crescendo that never arrives and Stephen Graham is supposed to just swear constantly “Fuckin’ Hellboy! I fucking hate that fucker!” I have no problem with swearing but it loses meaning when utilised without gravitas or meaning. On top of that, Hellboy himself boils down to little more than a pawn and lacks a lot of agency, which I will be the first to admit, is something present in every iteration of the character but the execution is usually so charming and convincing that we not only accept this flaw but embrace it as an inherent personality quirk. Dialogue and interactions aside, there’s also the driving force of the plot and the feeble developments and coincidences that push the plot clumsily from one point to another. At no point did I feel an actual sense of tension or urgency because some last-minute quick fix would present itself. The standard plot development of placing a long-sought McGuffin under the lead’s nose the whole time can be applied cleverly but when boons are haphazardly slapped directly in the hero’s path, it becomes evident that little time, attention or thought has gone into constructing a discerning or coherent tale.
There are a handful of positive elements that genuinely save this release from being a miserable wreck. First up we have the entire Baba Yaga scene, which is atmospheric, a nice hybrid of practical and digital effects, is both creepy and surreally funny, as well as fitting the source material and folk lore. This scene also acts as a reminder that the production design, sets, props and costume work are all very impressive and commendable, inheriting a lot of the elements that acted as the backbone for the (visual) success of the other Hellboy films. In terms of performances, we also have a handful that somehow shine a little despite what they’ve been given (like Dwayne Johnson in mediocre action films). Specifically, Harbour and Jovovich are easily the best things about this movie, with Harbour proving himself a fantastic choice to take the torch from Ron Perlman and Jovovich wading through the dense dialogue to conjure a threatening and believable villain. Then we have Ian McShane who barks and growls his way through every scene and does a terrific job of it but remains a terrible fit for Bruttenholm.
With extensive interference, lack of clear vision and given less less money than the 2004 film, it’s evident that this movie never had much of a chance. More than that, it highlights that to take a project like this forward, you need an exceptional amount of love for the components that make up the source material and the trust of the studio to create a unique vision without obstruction or burden. But as this film will no doubt fail hideously, I can’t see this property being resurrected any time soon.
12th April 2019
The Scene To Look Out For:
The finale is terribly anticlimactic. Nimue summons colossal ancient monsters to run rampant through London but Hellboy commits one simple act and they disappear as quickly as they arrived. I will happily admit that is also the plot of the 2004 Hellboy film but it had the good sense to still give us a stowaway that broke through that prompted a pleasing final showdown. This film does not. Giant beings appear, gratuitous violence ensues and then they are gone, all within a ten minute window. It’s a combination of lack of fiscal support, the aforementioned dull writing and the marketing campaign giving everything away in the trailers.
Thomas Haden Church makes a brief appearance as BPRD regular, Lobster Johnson; a pulpy ridiculous throwback to classic comic characters. There isn’t a great deal to the performance but his presence in a flashback is one that reminds us of the fun, zany world Mike Mignola created and what this film could have easily been.
“They have replaced swords with singing competitions”
In A Few Words:
“A shocking misfire that is “saved” solely due to the hard work of the practical effects and production design teams”