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Posts Tagged ‘Hellboy’

Film-making is not an exact science, and the exact length of the Minimal Acceptable Period Before Remake is one of those subjective things: it used to be at least twenty years, but recent developments have seen this being cut down quite considerably – Dino de Laurentiis took considerable stick for making two versions of Red Dragon only fifteen years apart, but the response to Sony doing Spider-Man’s origin twice in barely more than a decade received much more muted grumbling. Equally open to debate is that other cinematic figure, Optimum Period Before Sequel, although here there seems to be more of a consensus – two or three years is generally considered to be the ideal, although Disney have taken up something of an outlying position here, what with the 54 year wait between films about their supernatural dominatrix.

All of which brings us, more or less, to Neil Marshall’s Hellboy, which began its development as a sequel to the two films about Mike Mignola’s hell-spawned superhero made by Guillermo del Toro in the mid 2000s. The producers eventually decided not to ask del Toro back to complete his planned trilogy (good move, guys, I mean – it’s not like he’s done anything worth mentioning in the last couple of years, is it?), at which point the film was switched to being a remake, or relaunch, or reimagining, or whatever the buzzy word for doing a new version of something well-known is these days.

It almost instantly becomes obvious that del Toro’s studiously subtle and quirkily atmospheric sensibility has not survived into the new film, as we are plunged into a flashback to the Dark Ages – known as such for a ‘****ing good reason’, according to the narration – where King Arthur is battling an army of demons and monsters, led by the sorceress Nimue (Milla Jovovich – ignore that sound you think you can hear, it’s just alarm bells starting to ring). The film’s extravagant fondness for lavish CGI gore becomes apparent as King Arthur dismembers his opponent and has the various bits entombed in secret locations across the British isles – ‘this isn’t over!’ cries Jovovich’s severed head as it is thrust into a box, and as we haven’t even reached the opening credits yet, it’s hard to argue with that. (Suggestions that the new Hellboy shares a fair chunk of its plot with The Kid Who Would Be King seem to me to have some truth to them.)

Then we’re back in the present day, where Hellboy (David Harbour) is taking part in a Mexican wrestling match with a luchador who’s actually a vampire, which sets up various plot and character points. Any thought that this might actually be a continuation of the del Toro films is finally put to rest, as Hellboy’s adopted father is alive again, and this time played by Ian McShane. For no particularly credible reason, McShane decides to fill Hellboy in on his origins, as he has apparently not bothered to do so in the previous 75 years and Hellboy has seemingly never thought to ask. With this flagrant slab of exposition out of the way, Hellboy is packed off to the UK to assist an aristocratic bunch of British occultists deal with an infestation of man-eating giants. But there is more afoot than the giant feet of the giants! Someone is gathering together the various bits of Milla Jovovich, and if they can complete the set, she will rise again and unleash a terrible plague upon the world, possibly even worse than the Resident Evil movie series…

Apparently the main idea that Neil Marshall brought to this project was the idea that it would straddle the horror and superhero boundaries. (This may explain the weird mish-mash of superhero, fantasy and horror trailers running before Hellboy, which included the same trailer for The Curse of La Llorona twice.) Well, hmmm. I have to say that I have always felt rather indulgent towards Neil Marshall, as his films tend to have a great sense of fun and energy, even if they are often wildly OTT gorefests. And he has made one genuinely great horror film, 2005’s The Descent, a wrenchingly tense and scary movie. Generally speaking, though, he just doesn’t seem to have the patience involved in creating the right kind of atmosphere to properly frighten an audience, and settles for just grossing them out with blood and guts spraying across the screen. This is certainly the route that his version of Hellboy takes, and I’m not really sure how it helps the project much: it doesn’t exactly broaden the appeal of the movie, just reinforces the impression that it is primarily aimed at heavy metal fans.

Of course, this was the movie that drew controversy before production even began because of some of its casting choices were considered to be ethnically inappropriate – the actor initially cast as Hellboy was not actually a demon, thus depriving representation to performers who were genuinely from the abyssal realm. Then everybody sat down and had a good think and realised that a) you’re never going to please everyone when it comes to this sort of thing and b) once someone’s in the Hellboy make-up, you can’t really tell who they are anyway, so it’s best not to get stressed out about it. So they went with David Harbour anyway. Harbour is okay at playing the sulky teenager elements of the role, but struggles to do much more with it; his great good fortune is to be acting opposite Milla Jovovich, who makes most people look good in comparison. Jovovich’s contribution sets the tone for most of the acting in this film, by which I mean it is by and large quite lousy; McShane phones in a decent performance, though, and there is some amusing voice work from Stephen Graham as a fairy with the head of a pig.

Then again, I suppose you could argue that the actors can only work with what they’re given, which in this case is a fairly ropy script seemingly more concerned with lurching from one gory CGI set-piece to the next, with clunky exposition and iffy dialogue filling in the gaps. The saving grace of the new Hellboy is not that it brings us an important message or makes a great deal of sense, or even a small amount of sense, or even any sense whatsoever; it is that Marshall is clearly having a whale of a time smashing all these very disparate ideas together, doing so with great energy and even the occasional shaft of genuine wit (to pass the time before she is constituted, Nimue’s henchman piles her various body parts on a sofa, where she passes the time watching reality TV – it certainly provides motivation for her desiring the apocalypse).

The new Hellboy is not in the same league as either of the del Toro films, lacking their charm, subtlety or attention to detail; as mentioned, the actors are not well-served by the script, either. But I would be lying if I said it does not provide a certain kind of entertainment value. You really do have to indulge it a bit, though, and it may be that many people just won’t be prepared to do that. Which is fair enough. I don’t think any sane observer would claim that Hellboy is a great movie, but it’s a reasonably fun bad movie.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published September 9th 2004:

The seemingly implacable advance of the comic-book adaptation continues. Things have now got to the stage where it isn’t just Marvel and DC who are invading the multiplexes, even smaller outfits like Dark Horse are muscling in on the act. To be fair to them, Dark Horse have some form when it comes to the big screen, but their track record is wildly variable – The Mask and Barb Wire were both based on their characters. (They also dreamt up the concept behind Alien Vs Predator.) The company is on much more solid ground with Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy.

The film opens in 1944 with an Allied taskforce discovering Nazi occultists up to no good off the Scottish coast. They intend to open a portal and awake the sleeping Chaos Gods, and thus trigger the apocalypse. But the plot is foiled and leading cultist Rasputin (Karel Rodan) is sucked up his own vortex. But something has already slipped through into our world – a baby demon, red of hue and mild of temperament, whom the Allies’ occult advisor adopts and christens Hellboy…

Sixty years on and the now-grown Hellboy (a terrific performance by Ron Perlman) is a secret operative for the FBI, busting supernatural ass with the aid of his foster-father Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt) and psychic fish-man Abe Sapien (voiced by David Hyde Pierce). He also has a bit of a thing for troubled human bonfire Liz (Selma Blair). But more important matters are afoot as Rasputin has returned from the dimension he was banished to and he and his cronies are still terribly keen on bringing about the end of the world – a plan to which Hellboy is central…

If Stan Lee and HP Lovecraft went on a date to see the Indiana Jones trilogy and then got their dirty freak on and the unnatural union was somehow fertile, I’m sure the offspring would look very much like this movie. (This is supposed to be praise, by the way.) Even by the soaring standards of the modern comic adaptation Hellboy is great stuff. It’s pacy, funny, visually striking and is stuffed with fine performances.

Chief amongst these is that of Ron Perlman, a familiar name to fans of SF and fantasy films. Not really a familiar face, however, as he seems to have spent roughly half of his entire life in prosthetic make-up in films and TV shows like Beauty and the Beast, Star Trek: Insurrection, and The Name of the Rose. Is it engaging in needless hyperbole to suggest that his entire career has been leading up to this point? Well, maybe, but it’s difficult to imagine anyone else playing Hellboy better than he does here. He takes a fairly ridiculous character and gives him depth and charm and subtlety, while still looking the part in the gleefully destructive action sequences which pepper the movie. The fact that the Hellboy make-up manages to be true to the comic and yet still quite credible, even in broad daylight, is a big help to him. But Hurt is also on sparkling form and Blair is likeable, as is Rupert Evans as a rookie FBI agent assigned to the department.

What’s also really impressive about this film is the way that del Toro chooses to take his time and concentrate on characterisation and relationships instead of just rattling the plot from one super-powered barney to the next. There’s an urbanely off-the-wall sense of humour that permeates much of the film, manifesting as Hellboy’s unexpected soft-spot for cats or habit of idly grinding down his horns with power-tools in order to be less conspicuous. But the feelings between the main characters are genuine and affecting. Del Toro’s action sequences don’t have quite the same level of breathless frenzy he brought to Blade 2, but are suitably protracted and over-the-top.

However, if I had to make a criticism of this movie, it’s that the emphasis on character and humour means that the actual plot suffers somewhat. This really isn’t a problem as the leads are so likeable you stick with the film regardless, but there are quite a few plot-threads left dangling or unexplained: why Rasputin’s girlfriend doesn’t age a day in sixty years, for example. [I was taken to task over this, as it is apparently explained in the movie, albeit in a very casual and easy-to-overlook fashion. – A]¬†And, like Spider-Man 2, it’s a slight shame that a film that makes a virtue of not being just another empty-headed blockbuster has as its climax a fairly routine CGI set-piece.

This is quibbling, of course. Hellboy doesn’t take itself remotely seriously and neither should you. But if you like the pulpiest of pulp fiction, unusual heroes, inventively horrible villains, jokes, ooze, and just a dash of romance, then this is the film for you. Great fun.

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