How Bad Is…Hellboy ?
The new Hellboy reboot got dragged to critical hell, but does it deserve the fiery crown?
Hellboy 2019 bombed at the theaters and with critics. Despite a solid record for the first two Hellboy films from Guillermo Del Toro, there just didn’t seem to be much appetite for the big red monster hunter from hell this time around. Today we take a look at the new Hellboy and attempt to answer the age old question of How Bad Is It really? Grab your oversized gun and your fist of doom as we set out to determine if Hellboy 2019 is a one way ticket to hell, or simply a misunderstood monster.
A Nazi plot to turn the tide of World War 2 results in Reich occultists summoning a juvenile demon. A group of clandestine heroes who combat dark magic and the supernatural foil the ceremony, and Professor Broom (Ian McShane) adopts the demon, training him to become a weapon against evil. Decades later, Hellboy (David Harbour) has become an angst ridden adult, caught between two worlds. When he is lured into a trap by a secret society that regards him as a threat to humanity, he learns of an ancient prophecy involving himself, an ancient witch queen (Mila Jovovich) and the end of the world.
What Went Right?
- A Weird and Wild World. The common theme with all three positives to Hellboy, is that it takes a lot of risks. It’s almost cavalier with the gambles it is willing to make, which is refreshing in the increasingly tame and measured world of super hero stories. Pretty much everything about Hellboy – from its characters to its mythological pilferings to its themes – are all pretty out there. The movie isn’t afraid to embrace that legacy, resulting in a film filled with Nazi wizards, old British legends, Gaelic myth, and a good dose of Christian hell and brimstone. It doesn’t always connect, but it isn’t afraid to swing for the fences anyway.
It was always going to be hard to match Guilermo Del Toro’s macabre sensibility when it came to creature design, but I think Hellboy 2019 does a good job on its own terms. The mythological creatures all look distinct and monstrous, even thought the digital effects can feel a bit dated. The film really shines when it imagines Hell and all of the exquisitely horrific creatures that come bubbling out of the underworld. Which brings us to our next point…
- Really Leans into its Horror with a Hard R. The second front where Hellboy does not give a flying fuck is in earning its R rating. The film curses like a sailor, spills blood like a slasher, and goes full Lovecraft when it comes to its creatures. I can see how some critics thought that all of the crudity felt like angsty posturing, but I think it informed the film’s identity. This was going to be a comic book movie for horror fans. It needed to have all of the blood and guts and ghoulies to satisfy those fans. And, once again, when it came to the bits about Hell, it really showed.
The ending sequence where we get a view of Hell on Earth was one of my favorite sequences. The creature design was fantastic, somewhere between Hellraiser and Silent Hill. The sheer mindless viciousness of the demons was breathtaking. These horrors murder civilians like a highlight reel from the latest Mortal Kombat game, but with no emotional affect. These are demons. They kill people. Horribly. It’s not even something that makes them feel good. It was a shockingly nihilistic take on Hell, and pretty damn interesting.
- Rock and Roll Lifestyle. The final bit of aesthetic liberty I enjoyed from Hellboy was the big, swinging heavy metal mentality. The soundtrack was pretty solid, with Alice Cooper, Motely Crue, Los Lobos bringing the sturm while Mozart and Beethoven brought the drang. To go along with this swagger, the action sequences were well choreographed and executed. Everything was fast, frenetic and violent.
Neil Marshall uses some interesting camera angles during the best of those sequences, a fight with three giants, where the camera drunkenly lurches around a disoriented Hellboy as he tries to fight adversaries so big they are always out of frame. It felt like the camera work from Twister, where the lens has to capture both a human subject and a force of nature in the same framing, all while in constant motion and dodging the destruction raining out of the sky.
What Went Wrong?
- The Acting…It’s Not Great. I was not a fan of many of the performances on display. Mila Jovovich doesn’t quite seem to know if she’s supposed to be vamping the hell out of her role or playing a more malevolent baddie, and winds up not really doing either. Ian McShane seems to be just playing a stock Ian McShane character, a Machiavellian and caustic authority figure with a soft spot. The supporting roles were forgettable, coming nowhere close to the delightful companions played by Selma Blair and Doug Jones in the first film. And that brings us to the main character, Hellboy.
I kinda hated David Harbour as Hellboy. His take on the character was all teenage petulance and angst. He mopes and snarls and storms through all of his dialogue. That one scene in the trailer where he reacts angrily to a friendly soldier mistaking him for a bad guy? That’s his method of delivery for the entire film. It felt like the Al Pacino school of over acting: every sentence has to work its way up to where you end shouting. It got pretty irritating.
- Utterly Charmless. The problems with David Harbour’s Hellboy radiate to all of the characters. There’s just nobody that is likable in this film. The good guys are all peevish, condescending, or brooding. The bad guys are stuck in stock character limbo. I got to the halfway point of the film and wondered to myself “who exactly am I supposed to be rooting for here?” By trying to be edgy all of the time, Neil Marshall makes a core of characters who are utterly off-putting. The film really could have benefited from the charisma of a Ron Perlman. The few jokes on offer all fall flat – every time Hellboy is put into a “Charlie Brown” situation that is supposed to make him sympathetic, it gets deflated by his petulant attitude. I’d snatch the football away from this sad sack, too.
- King Arthur? Seriously? All of the myth-making and secret societies in Hellboy’s source material can be a bit much. While I applauded the film for tackling much of the more obscure stuff, discretion is the better part of valor. I enjoyed the early sequence which tied together the end of the world plot with Arthurian legend…mostly because it had a fantastic fight sequence. But when we get the reveal that Hellboy is of the lineage of Arthur (you know, despite being from Hell and all that) I just threw my hands up. Yes, I know that it’s that way in the later comic books. Just because it’s in the source material doesn’t mean it isn’t dumber than a bag of hammers.
A bit of editorial oversight would have made for a more polished product. There’s a ton of stuff just thrown into the script. When adapting comics, it really becomes important to focus on where the major elements are and to leave out much of the accreted information. DC learned the hard way how audiences react to too much comic book story line fodder being crammed into a single film.
How Bad Is It?
Not really that bad. Just because I didn’t like any of the characters in this rebooted Hellboy didn’t mean I didn’t like the film as a whole. I think it had a consistent ethos that it was willing to live or die by, which I think brought more to the film than it took away. It took risks, which seems to be the antithesis of a majority of comic book movies. It does some cool things with its visuals and story telling, even while stepping on a few landmines of plot silliness and dated CG effects. Overall, besides rolling my eyes every time either Hellboy shouted or King Arthur was mentioned, I was engaged by the film. For two hours, it was paced well enough that I hardly noticed the time go by. Hellboy 2019 may not be the 3rd film in the franchise that many wanted, but it’s not a terrible outing for fans who like byzantine paranormal plots and heavy metal ass-kicking.