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Hellboy (2019)

The first cinematic adaptation of Hellboy was released in April of 2004. It was a minor box office success, fueled by a passionate fanbase that rallied fiercely around writer/director Guillermo Del Toro. I presume the studio execs at Columbia and Revolution we’re still dithering on whether to move forward with a sequel when Batman Begins was released the next year, ushering in the new “gritty reboot” paradigm that had no place for the specific brand of fantasy this franchise was built on.

Still, the demand for a sequel was loud enough that Universal was willing to take over the franchise and move ahead. So it was that Hellboy II: The Golden Army came out in July of 2008… only a week before The Dark Knight, and only a couple of months after Iron Man. Two movies that would once again completely redefine superhero cinema while Hellboy was sent back to the wayside with another minor box office success.

Promises of a third movie never came to pass, as Mike Mignola lost patience and came forward with an idea for a franchise reboot, which neither Guillermo del Toro or Ron Perlman wanted anything to do with. Thus given a free slate, Mignola worked with a new set of filmmakers to create a cinematic reboot more in keeping with the comics, without the artistic liberties unique to GDT.

(To be clear, all parties involved have publicly been very gracious. If GDT, Mignola, Perlman, Marshall, or anyone else in all of this ever said an unkind thing against each other, I never heard it.)

Hellboy (2019) was announced on May 9th of 2017, with star David Harbour, director Neil Marshall, writers Andrew Cosby and Christopher Golden, and even the working title “Hellboy: Rise of the Blood Queen” all ready to go. For context, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 opened to a whopping $146.5 million over the weekend of May 5th, 2017. The message was clear that Summit Entertainment (yes, another studio) had been actively developing the reboot behind closed doors for some time, reserving the option to scuttle the whole thing quietly until James Gunn proved that offbeat yet profitable superheroes were no fluke. And then the filmmakers went and released the film only two weeks before Avengers: Endgame, at a time when Captain Marvel and Shazam! are still playing in heavy rotation.

So here we have three movies produced by three different studios, all victims of suspect or outright unfortunate timing. More importantly, the GDT movies demonstrate what happens when three movies are carefully planned out, yet only two solid movies are made and the cycle remains maddeningly incomplete; while the recent Marshall film shows what happens when three movies are slammed together into a single two-hour runtime with no planning at all, resulting in an incoherent mess.

Right off the bat, the movie opens with a prologue in which every tidbit of information is repeated at least three different times in three different ways. We go from there to a scene in which Hellboy (David Harbour) is reunited with a rogue BPRD agent — we’re clearly supposed to care about this relationship, but it’s impossible when we know literally nothing about the agent and he’s barely even mentioned outside this one scene. So what we’ve got here is one of those movies in which every other line is exposition and we still don’t know what’s going on, a paradox that will only get worse.

As the film unfolds, we’re treated to all sorts of weird plot cul-de-sacs and threads that could have been cut entirely. A key example concerns the Osiris Club (kind of like a snobby British aristocrat counterpart to the BPRD) and their traditional Wild Hunt to kill three rampaging giants. Spoilers prevent me from going into details, but suffice to say that this whole plot detour should’ve been cut — it opens up so many questions while contributing nothing to the plot that isn’t established elsewhere.

Yet my personal favorite example comes at roughly the 80-minute mark, when Arthurian legend is introduced in a way that’s unnecessary, asinine, and contrived as all fuck. It’s like somebody saw The Kid Who Would Be King and said “Hey, let’s take this other movie, strip away everything that made it exciting and relevant, and cram it into our totally different and unrelated movie!” I don’t know how that’s possible when both movies were released this year and from different studios, but I’m looking for a common link between them.

That isn’t even getting started on all the work that was clearly done in post to try and make sense of all this. The flashback sequences feature some of the most redundant voice-over exposition I’ve ever witnessed, explaining things that are plainly visible to the audience. Far worse are all the scenes in which the editing is so frantic, struggling to dance around all the shots in which we see the characters’ lips move, trying to make the ADR less obvious. Instead, the recorded lines are only more obvious and obnoxious while accomplishing precisely nothing.

Then we have the action sequences. Because CGI is such a time- and labor-intensive process, it’s not at all uncommon for huge action sequences in Hollywood pictures to be planned and storyboarded (based on ideas from the director, writers, producers, etc.) while the script is still being written. This means that sometimes, huge set pieces take so much time and money to develop that the script has to be written to accommodate them, rather than the other way around. This is the best explanation I have for the aforementioned giant hunt, and for the other action set pieces that come right the fuck outta nowhere and would’ve done more good on the cutting room floor.

It’s bad enough that the action scenes are terribly shot and edited. It’s even worse that the score and soundtrack are laughably, woefully overblown in a way that doesn’t match the onscreen action or sell the stakes. But what really dooms the action scenes is in how Hellboy is clearly shown to suck at his job. For every time Hellboy lands a hit, there are at least five times when he gets thrown around like a ragdoll. It’s pathetic.

Yes, it’s important that we see the character’s blue-collar demeanor and his nonchalant attitude toward the apocalyptic beatdowns he endures every day on the job. But at the same time, Hellboy has been doing this for several decades, and he has supernatural abilities to boot — it should be plainly obvious that he knows what he’s doing. Yet never once in the entire runtime did I feel that Hellboy was ever in control of the situation at hand, and it’s flat-out embarrassing how many times he has to be saved by other characters. Even with the extenuating circumstances of the opening fight scene (I won’t go into details), am I seriously supposed to believe that Hellboy — freaking Hellboy! — would have this much trouble subduing a single common vampire? Bullshit.

To be clear, I can totally see why David Harbour was a natural choice to play the character. He’s totally got the gruff yet sensitive demeanor to nail this role. Unfortunately, he’s got nothing to work with. Characters are spouting exposition every which way, and all Hellboy can do is shoot some pithy one-liner about getting to the point. Then we’ve got the prosthetics — while I like the craggy and scarred look the filmmakers were clearly going for, the results are so rigid that Harbour can barely emote through them.

That said, this movie gets one crucial thing absolutely right: Hellboy’s conflicted role as a demon among humans. As the prophesied Herald of the Apocalypse and as a monster fighting to keep other monsters in the shadows, Hellboy questions his place in the world he’s working to shape. This results in some genuinely compelling internal drama, as Nimue (Milla Jovovich) tempts our protagonist with the promise of building a world in which Hellboy and all his fellow monsters can live openly and without the fear of humans.

This is some of the strongest thematic material in the movie, yet it still comes with the teeny tiny little caveat that it destroys the entire plot. Hellboy is shown to have a crucial role in Nimue’s plans for the end of the world, which is a huge part of why everyone fears and mistrusts Hellboy as the one who will supposedly bring about the end of the world. Trouble is, it’s well-established that Nimue already has more than enough power to bring about the end of the world on her lonesome. So why the hell does she need Hellboy and why would she risk putting her own plan in jeopardy by imparting equal (if not greater) powers to such a wildly unknown factor?

Then we have Hellboy’s adoptive father (Professor Trevor “Broom” Bruttenholm, with Ian McShane taking over the role from the late great John Hurt), and I’ll go ahead and say that this is the single lone improvement in the reboot. The original GDT movie mostly showed Hellboy and Broom at a low point in their relationship, such that the characters spent far more time ruminating on family matters individually and barely spent any time together onscreen. By comparison, this movie features multiple scenes in which Hellboy and Broom hash out their differences of opinion at great length. The relationship between them is intimately and extensively detailed, and both actors involved do a marvelous job of selling all of this even through the more cliched moments.

Yet even this comes with a huge caveat. Namely, a significant portion of the Hellboy/Broom development arc revolves around a shitty, shitty flashback sequence that portrays Hellboy’s origin with only half the detail and none of the competence or flair that GDT brought to the counterpart scene in the first movie. It’s like the filmmakers couldn’t quite decide if Hellboy’s origin story was mainstream enough to recap again (Not that it’s stopped DC/WB from retelling the origin stories for Batman or Superman a million times, but whatever.), so they took a half-assed half-measure. The one significant difference between the two cinematic portrayals is the inclusion of Lobster Johnson, a superhero from the source comic. He could’ve been cut from the movie entirely with nothing lost, and Thomas Haden Church does the absolute bare minimum to earn his paycheck in the role.

Speaking of which, let’s get to the supporting cast. Milla Jovovich is rampantly chewing scenery in search of better direction. Sophie Okonedo is wasted as an exposition machine. Stephen Graham plays a secondary villain whose personality could be measured in gratuitous F-bombs. Sasha Lane barely has enough screen presence to make her character work. Daniel Dae Kim isn’t really playing an Asian character so much as he’s playing Ed Skrein.

On a final miscellaneous note, I will admit that the special effects are pretty impressive throughout. There are a lot of neat practical/CGI mixes, the body horror is quite effective, and the monster designs (though not exactly on par with GDT’s work) are suitably terrifying.

Hellboy (2019) is not the worst movie I’ve seen. It’s patently obvious that everyone behind the scenes put genuine effort and passion into this project, and there are moments when that pays dividends — most especially in the Hellboy/Broom moments and those times when Hellboy has to question who the real monsters are. Unfortunately, I’m not even remotely convinced that the filmmakers knew what they were doing, even if they had zero doubt as to why they were doing it.

The ill-fitting action scenes, the haphazard plotting, the slipshod editing, and the painfully obvious ADR all serve as crystal clear evidence that the filmmakers were scrambling to figure the movie out as they went along. I don’t know what the filmmakers went into production with, but I’d stake my wallet that the initial production draft of the screenplay looked not a single goddamn thing like what eventually hit screens. As an action movie, as a horror movie, and as a reboot to an established cult-favorite franchise, the movie does absolutely nothing well enough to justify its own existence. Not recommended.

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