David Harbour and Sasha Lane in Hellboy
Unless we’re made privy to the information through a third party, we as audiences can’t really know what a film’s production was like. There are masterpieces that were total shitshows from start to finish; there are absolutely turdly movies that were probably life-changing experiences on set that everyone came out of a better, more talented person. There does exist a kind of movie, however, where you can get a very clear idea of what the set was like. They’re the movies where no one could agree on anything, where a ton of producers have a ton of ideas, where there’s too much money at stake to make any kind of mildly uncommercial decision and so everything is played right down the middle.
In a best case scenario, those movies are thoroughly generic and forgettable; in most scenarios, they’re something like Hellboy: joyless pancake stacks of CGI gore, convoluted exposition and witless one-liners that feel like the inevitable product of a collaboration in which literally everyone working on the film seems to be compromising and kowtowing to some other force.
Like so many of these films (another that comes to mind in this mold is Jonah Hex, which is admittedly a worse and more incompetently made movie), Hellboy is doubly disappointing because it actually held some promise. I was never a huge fan of Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy films, but even I can admit that the world of Hellboy gives any filmmaker plenty to work with, and that a Hellboy remake/reboot/reimagining could potentially take the character in a different direction.
Putting the project in director Neil Marshall’s hands suggested that the powers that be wanted a darker, more horror-oriented take on the character, moving away from the more overt fantasy or superheroic elements of the del Toro films. Unfortunately, Hellboy instead finds itself cycling through popular culture of the last five years, alternately leaning on elements of Deadpool, The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones (which Marshall worked on as well) and sanding away at the more interesting aspects of the character to make something leaden and lumpy — a movie that just sits there.
Hellboy (David Harbour) is a paranormal investigator for the BPRD (Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense), which investigates and monitors the goings-on of all paranormal behaviour on Earth. Hard-drinking and harder-punching, Hellboy has forever lived under the shadow of his father, Trevor Bruttenholme (Ian McShane), the founder of BPRD. After lots of murky exposition that sees endless montages of Hellboy going from point A to point B with chooglin’ alternative rock (Queens of the Stone Age, maybe? The Black Keys? Who’s to say?) needle-dropped at every turn, we learn that Nimue the Blood Queen (Milla Jovovich) has returned to Earth to finish the job she started hundreds of years ago, before she was chopped up into pieces and all of her limbs were locked into chests and dispersed across the globe. Now she’s back, bla bla bla, Hellboy has to stop her with the help of a young Irish witch (Sasha Lane) and a rugged BPRD military man (Daniel Dae Kim), etc.
The first half hour of Hellboy is pleasant enough. It sets itself apart, if not from the del Toro films then certainly from most other comic book adaptations out there. It’s extremely unnecessarily gory in a cartoonish, gloopy way that recalls “edgy” video games from the turn of the century: heads explode like overripe fruit, people are ripped in half and disemboweled like they’re made of rice paper, stabbings are plentiful enough to give the foley artists a healthy overtime cheque. The action scenes are, consequently, not bad; in the early parts of the film, they have a clean efficiency to them that’s refreshing. But the problem is that the first half hour of Hellboy is by far the least cluttered and most straightforward section of the film, which is soon bogged down into interminable scenes of Hellboy being told an important piece of information by some kind of pig-faced monster or literal Baba Yaga, after which he turns a bunch of monsters into giblets and immediately leaves to go get another piece of information from some other grotesque being.
Granted, impenetrable exposition and tedious block-stacking is nothing new in the world of comic-book adaptations — I’ve rarely seen it done in such a tiresome manner. Hellboy feels more like a trailer for a shitty video game from 2002 than an actual movie — an uninvolving mess of swirling special effects that you can’t actually skip through, peppered with shitty ADR one-liners. Harbour does a decent enough job stepping into Ron Perlman’s shoes, but he’s hardly capable of doing miracles when most of the dialogue he’s given is either repeating the long-winded prophecies he was just told or yelling, “Quit while you’re ahead” before tossing a decapitated head into a lava pit.
All of these problems are fundamental. They’re things that were decided upon and workshopped, not just the result of on-set friction. But it’s hard to imagine that the present version of Hellboy is satisfactory to anyone who made it or anyone who’s in it — it seems constantly compromised, adding a pithy one-liner or a bit of gore wherever there’s space just because. It’s worse than just filmmaking by committee; it’s filmmaking by jabbering mob, a composite of what seems to be dozens upon dozens of people yelling suggestions to a harried production assistant, who in turn hands a bunch of unreadable notes to a director who tells himself that, if nothing else, he got Hellboy to say fuck a lot more than in previous movies. ■
Hellboy opens in theatres on Friday, April 11. Watch the trailer here: