Adaptation is a tough thing to nail. You can jump from one medium to another of course, but it feels like making the leap to the movies is the final destination for a lot of original works. You don’t hear of many video games or comic books adapted into slam poetry these days, and that’s a real shame. What, you omitted that character? Fans hate it. Oh, you made things different? Fans hate it. Well with Neil Marshall’s Hellboy reboot fans can hate it… because it’s just not good.
Director: Neil Marshall
Release Date: April 12, 2019
Look, the big red elephant in the room is the burn shared by fans and creators over the previous big-screen adaptations of Mike Mignola’s half-human hellspawn. Guillermo Del Toro and Ron Perlman faithfully brought to life a beloved cult character, imbuing his occult offerings with enough mainstream charm and whimsy so as to reach a broader audience. Crafted with talent and a true love of the comics those films were, and while no judgement falls on Marshall’s film and David Harbour’s portrayal because of what came before, it becomes clear what passion looks like in the end result.
After an awful and abrupt vignette setting up the Dark Age history of Nimue (Milla Jovovich), our big bad Blood Queen, we’re thrust into Hellboy’s world of supernatural slugfests. Harbour is cocky and bouncy in his juvenile, smash-first-research-later portrayal, and leaps from brawling with a vampire to bickering with “foster father” and BPRD (read: supernatural FBI) founder Trevor Bruttenholm (Ian McShane) in a flash. We barely get a read on things before being swept into a giant hunt (that is, a hunt for giants) across the English countryside. Hellboy crams so much into its two-hour runtime that it’s tough to breathe, and the world details and characters etched out by Mignola over the course of decades of comics are glossed over like the slick digital blood the film so liberally spills. I’m a die hard fan of the comics and knows them inside and out and I was wondering how inexplicable and messy the script would read to someone who maybe even casually knew an Ogdru Jahad from Anung Un Rama.
Though there are beats lifted straight from the pages, Hellboy still manages to miss the point. I mentioned buckets of blood--I should say, fuckin’ buckets of fuckin’ blood. This movie has a mouth on it like a teenager who just saw Pulp Fiction. It comes across as downright juvenile, Sasha Lane’s young psychic medium Alice is particularly guilty of the cringey cursing.
The script stinks. Everyone from the Blood Queen to our token military guy Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim) chirp and spit their dialogue with the subtlety of a big red hand of doom. Should a movie about a half-demon from Hell punching Nazis and monsters really be subtle though? Not necessarily! But Mignola’s occult investigator thrives off of his working class approach and tired wit, as well as his big gun and brawn. There’s an intelligence to the writing that not only doesn’t shine in Marshal’s film, but is obscured by sloppy heavy-handedness (pun sort of intended) and humor falling flatter than a squished civilian.
Heavy-handed also is the internal conflict imbued in ‘ol ‘Boy for the sake of fabricating more drama. Hellboy, interest piqued by Blood Queen Nimue’s promise of a world ruled by monsters, poses the question of whether humans are to blame for the vicious violence sicced upon unsuspecting victims in her quest for power. Sort of an unending eye-for-an-eye cycle. Besides that, his inner turmoil feels superficial and distracting from the dilemma of monster hordes descending that the film sets up, it also just doesn’t make sense with the timeframe we’re given. Summoned by the Nazis in 1945, fighting monsters under Bruttenholm’s guidance since he was 10 years old, and here’s Hellboy in 2019 tapping away at his smartphone (we of course get multiple gags of him breaking said phone) and only now, more than 70 years old does he feel any sort of conflict? It just overstuffs the film even more, and lends some credence to the rumors of rushed rewrites and behind-the-scenes scuffles over content.
Now, Hellboy is a poor film by many accounts, for a lot of reasons, but it certainly isn’t unwatchable. Harbour is consistent with his sarcasm and disregard for the proper, poking fun at stuffy occultists and quipping when the studio quip quota demands it. It doesn’t quite feel like Hellboy, but such is the nature of interpretation, and the performance flies alright compared to the rest of the cast.
Visually, Hellboy is a mixed bag of CG hordes and spectacle and prosthetics and practical effects, with some faithful representations from the pages, as well as a smattering of original hulking nightmares causing a right jam on the streets of London. Russian witch Baba Yaga’s big literally-mobile home is suitably foggy and atmospheric, while some of the hulking hellspawn look like extras wandered off from Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights.
Where there’s some fun imagery in the hordes of Hell and crumbling, apocalyptic London, it’s just a shame we’re so constantly under fire from caffeinated editing and scene transitions (with tonal whiplash of an unintentional and ineffective variety), as well as sloppy use of licensed music and some wailing guitar tracks that play like a talent show jam session. There are some nice, tense moments in Hellboy and even a little bit of good action, largely frontloaded in with our giant hunt. If only we were allowed to stop and smell the creepy, thorny roses.
And there are roses aplenty. As mentioned, Hellboy pulls a lot of stuff in, with winks and nods to stories and characters (including a few major hey-let’s-do-a-sequel teases near the end) whom fans would no doubt love to see on the screen again. Just maybe for more than a moment before jumping to some other point in time and space.
Like any work, Hellboy should be judged on its own merits, and not by the standards set by previous adaptations or source material that we’ve come to love. Just because it isn’t one thing doesn’t mean it can’t be good. Sadly it seems, any critical fans and stubborn students of the lore will find their suspicions satisfied. If only the ‘Boy had just grown up a little.