NOT BETTER THAN THE DEVIL YOU KNOW
Director: Neil Marshall
Review: David Stephens
If there was a list for franchises that horror fans DIDN’T want rebooted, then “Hellboy” must figure somewhere near the top of it. And it’s not because most people didn’t want to see the story continued, but it’s the fact that Guillermo del Toro’s “Hellboy” (2004) and “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” (2008) had cinematically established the much-loved Dark Horse character so well. Ron Perlman’s layered interpretation of “Big Red” was seen as the definitive version, and a trilogy-closer was envisaged to complete his story arc as the bringer of the Apocalypse (or not). Unfortunately, studio wrangling and box office receipts put paid to that plan, despite plenty of goodwill amongst fans and critics. With del Toro and Perlman no longer linked to an active project, the franchise eventually went down Reboot Alley (next to Remake Avenue, and close to Prequel Street). Some franchises are improved by reboots (*Cough*Godzilla*Cough*), but when you’re dealing with a popular commodity like Hellboy, with a fan base already slightly pissed at circumstance, you’ve got a very sharp double-edge sword. Lionsgate did regain some goodwill when David Harbour (“Stranger Things”) was announced as the lead, quite possibly the only actor capable of stepping into Perlman’s hooves. And Neil Marshall (“The Descent”, “Dog Soldiers”… not to mention episodes of GOT and “Hannibal”) seemed a creditable director to helm the reboot. But then there was controversy over casting decisions and rumours of discord during the writing of the screenplay, despite creator Mike Mignola being involved. When the teaser trailer was released it got a mixed response, although the red band trailer fared better with its promise of plenty of blood and foul language. Now the film has been released in the UK and US, so YGROY took a trip to the ninth circle to see if it’s an infernal delight or just eternal torment.
We get opening exposition from Trevor Bruttenholm (Ian “I’m in EVERYTHING” McShane) explaining the Arthurian legend of Nimue – The Blood Queen. Also known as “Lady of the Lake”, she was most powerful Witch to have ever existed (played by Milla Jovovich… who must have a Dorian Gray-type picture in her attic or something). But King Arthur cut her body into pieces before she could spread a human-killing plague across Albion and the rest of the world. Cut to the present day and Hellboy (Harbour) is in Mexico trying to recover a fellow BPRD (Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defence) agent. When that mission goes tits-up, he returns to England in a bitchy mood and tackles another mission set-up by the BPRD Head (and his Foster Father) Bruttenholm. But his objective to cut three giants down to size leads to the realisation that the Blood Queen is being resurrected by some old enemies and Hellboy’s true destiny may just be around the corner…
It didn’t take long for a tsunami of negative reviews to hit the web as soon as the embargoes were lifted for this heavily promoted film. That has been quickly followed up by several unsubstantiated reports; the script was changed and messed with on a frequent basis, some members of the cast walked off after refusing to take part in umpteen reshoots, even set designs for trees caused conflict. Is all that warranted though? After all when you’re trying to continue a franchise for which genre fans had so much love for, you’re going to ruffle feathers. Unfortunately… yes. It’s a mess. It just about creeps into the “watchable” zone, but it’s far below the cinematic version that del Toro managed a decade ago. The main problem is that the studio (Lionsgate) has just been too ambitious for its own good, and everything (bar perhaps a demonic kitchen sink) has been thrown into the screenplay. The script tries to bring together at least four major comic book storylines in one narrative; “Darkness Calls”, “The Wild Hunt”, “The Storm and the Fury”, and “Hellboy in Mexico”. As a result of trying to squeeze all that content into a 2hr movie, the plots are mix-and-matched, severely abridged, and lose all meaning and momentum. (NB: The film would have a VERY different ending had it copied the climax of “The Storm and the Fury”). Not only that, it also retells Hellboy’s origin AGAIN (complete with blink-and-miss cameos from Rasputin and Karl Ruprect Kroenen), has flashbacks for EVERY main character, and introduces individuals in such a slap-dash fashion that if you don’t know the comics well you may well be flummoxed (Lobster Johnson, Baba Yaga, etc).
You’d think that all this ambition and adherence to the Dark Horse Comic universe would be a treat for devoted fans of the source material. But it just doesn’t hold together as a coherent piece of entertainment. Without barking on about it, at least del Toro’s movies realised that emotion was as important to the story as the complex mythology. There’s nothing close to the affection shown between Hellboy and Liz Sherman, or even Abe Sapien and Princess Nuala, in the new film. The nearest it come to that is Hellboy’s fractious relationship with his “Dad”, and even that feels a little superficial. To his credit, Harbour really looks the part and he tries really hard to give the character life. His interpretation of Big Red is intentionally immature and rife with “rebellious teenager” vibes, spattered with plenty of putdowns and f-bombs. It would have been much more successful, had the script backed his performance up and the plot given him more to work with. As it stands, if you’ve seen the Red Band trailer, you’ve basically heard ALL the best one-liners. Jovovich also gives it a good shot and makes a fine adversary, instilling some strength and dignity to the villain, although she is let down by the material as well. To be honest, everyone else in the cast seems to be phoning it in to some extent (some more than others), but the pace is so frantic and busy, it’s probably down to a number of reasons. When you have multiple sequences with over-dubbed dialogue, some of which genuinely overlaps and is hard to hear, you know there have been a few problems in production.
With all that though, you have to admire the fact that they stubbornly remained committed to producing an R-rated experience. F-bombs abound and the gore is surprisingly gratuitous; brains spill out of heads into the camera, eyeballs flap about on optic nerves, and a giant demon even does a “Bone Tomahawk” on a hapless innocent (Yeah, you know what we mean!). From a pure exploitation angle that makes it a fun pulpy experience. The CG and practical effects range from “not bad” (Baba Yaga) to “lousy” (Skinny Ectoplasmic spooks), but often fit in with the proceedings, making it feel like an affectionate Harryhausen update on monster movies rather than a superhero film or comic book adaptation. Hellboy’s dust-up with three gross giants in the English countryside is the perfect example of that, and you might find your horror-loving-self grin a little during those standalone moments, edging it into the guilty pleasure bracket. As a pulpy, bloody, sweary monster movie… well, it’s there and if that’s what you want, that’s what you’ve got. As anything more however, it’s sadly wanting. The final scene, and mid and post-credits sequences, desperately reach for a planned sequel. But unless the box office is surprisingly Hell-thy, don’t expect it. Purgatory beckons again.