Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy II was released in 2008, a mere ten years before the release of this new reboot, by Neil Marshall. The reboot bombed horribly, which kind of saddens me because I generally like Neil Marshall’s output. He’s the director of The Descent and Dog Soldiers, both of which are good, solid, action-horror movies, each with a deft emotional touch.
This newest version of Hellboy isn’t’ bad, but lord, it isn’t good. Well, let’s just say it’s worst than it should’ve been. I want to compare Del Toro’s and Marshall’s versions of the films, but in order to do that, I need to also talk about the comic book series the movies are based on, as both movies capture different aspects of the books.
The comic books are written by many different people, but Mike Mignola, as the initial creator, has had an enormous amount of control over his creation. Depending on what mood Mignola is in, you can get humor, or scares, or melancholy, which is something felt across the entire series.
Marshall’s remake is a grim and disjointed affair, that feels like a collection of unrelated action scenes, with too many flashbacks designed to illuminate who the various characters are, and why they’re doing what they’re doing, any one of which could be made into their own film, rather than the hodgepodge we got.
I believe Marshall’s first mistake was starting the film with the villain’s origin story. Nimue is some type of Witch Queen, who gets killed by King Arthur, and Merlin. Using Excalibur, they chop her into pieces, and send the pieces to different parts of the world. We then move to the present day, where the plot becomes unnecessarily convoluted, as a secret organization tries to kill Hellboy. This secret organization has no other role in the film other than getting Hellboy to visit England.
Meanwhile, Baba Yaga (one of the coolest parts of the movie) is collecting the various pieces of the Witch Queen (with the help of a kind of troll, fairy/ pig creature, also cool). Hellboy fights some giants, which has nothing to do with the rest of the movie and feels like filling time until we get to the real plot. He is then kidnapped by Alice, who gets a flashback to when Hellboy saved her from the fairies, specifically the fairy pig thingie that took Alice’s place as a changeling, and who now bears a grudge against Hellboy for having exorcised him from Alice’s house.
Outside of that, Alice’s story is unrelated to the larger Nimue story and Baba Yaga. Hellboy fights with his adoptive father, who gets a flashback to his first meeting with Hellboy, and Hellboy meets Ben Daimio, who also gets a flashback to his origin story as a were-jaguar, a story that is wholly unrelated to anything else in the movie, although I liked seeing him because I have a crush on the actor, Daniel Dae Kim, who is also underused.
Actually, the very beginning of the movie is Hellboy traveling to Mexico to fight a friend who has been turned into a vampire Luchador, which sounds cool as fuck, comes directly from one of the stories in the comic books and could have been a movie in its own right. Hellboy kills his friend, goes into a drunken funk, and has to be taken back to headquarters by the agents of the BPRD. Nothing in this scene is even remotely related to anything else that happens in the movie and we don’t get to see any more Mexican bat-vampires for the duration of the film.
I liked many of the individual scenes in the movie, from the vampires to the giants to the Baba Yaga scene. I just wished all of these things had been tied together with a coherent story, and all the unnecessary stuff jettisoned to tighten up the plot. There’s also no big emotional payoff. The remake is more of a horror movie that’s made up of side quests. There’s a warmth and whimsy in the original films, that’s very palpable, and you get a distinct impression that Del Toro truly loves these characters. It’s not that I didn’t find things to like about this newer version, there were just fewer things to enjoy, and those things weren’t thematically or even emotionally connected to any of the other things. At times, the movie felt very workmanlike. Hellboy needs to meet someone so he gets taken to them. He needs to be somewhere so he’s ordered to go there. I liked the visuals, which were great, especially the scene of Baba Yaga’s house with the chicken legs, which came right out of my childhood nightmares. There’s a lot of gore in this movie, but beyond a few snarky comments by some of the characters, (mostly Alice), I just wasn’t feeling it.
At no point during the film does Hellboy make the decision to fight the apocalypse of his own free will. He spends the majority of the movie being snatched, kidnapped, derailed, or ordered about by the other characters, and seems not particularly interested in being heroic, at one point complaining about having been turned into a weapon by his adoptive father. In the middle of the movie, Hellboy has a very “emotional” fight with his father about this which comes across a bit ham-fisted, and seems to come out of nowhere. There’s no emotional buildup for this outburst nor is the subject ever revisited. This same subject is handled more deftly in Hellboy II, when Prince Nuada challenges Hellboy not to kill the last living Forest God, and accuses him of being nothing more than a weapon against his own kind if he does, and its a question that arises out of Hellboy’s wonderings about his life purpose.
A big part of my dissatisfaction is with the cast though. I wasn’t feeling any group cohesion, although I had no problem with David Harbour’s version of Hellboy, who seems as perfect for the role as Perlman, if somewhat more petulant but he is never given any room to shine since the plot constricts him. All of the relationships in this movie start out adversarial, and for no other reason than they were written that way, but at the end, the characters are suddenly working as a well-oiled team, and getting along with each other, except when they don’t. These were people who were together because the plot required them to be, not because they were friends or genuinely like each other.This is unlike the Del Toro movies, where the characters get on each other’s nerves, and are often exasperated by Hellboy’s behavior, but at least you get the sense that they like each other, and are long-term friends.
This movie tries and fails to create the dynamic seen between Hellboy and Abe in the original film, and fails at that too. Alice has something of the same powers as Abe (she’s a mystic) but never comes across as a fully realized character, with some kind of interior life. Abe, despite all the heavy makeup, is imbued by his actors body language with a deep interiority. Abe and the other characters are treated by the story as if they have a life when Hellboy isn’t around, especially in the second movie, where they are given their own storylines. We don’t know anything about Alice other than that she’s cranky.
As with the original movies, there are some impressive visuals, if not the sheer imagination of the first two films, but these visuals are not connected to anything in the rest of the plot. At the beginning of the movie Hellboy fights some giants. This fight has nothing to do with the overall plot with the Witch Queen, or the preceding plot, which had an organization that existed to kill him, in case he turns evil and destroys the world, according to the prophecy. The Witch Queen releases some demons that wreak havoc on the city of London, but Hellboy doesn’t get to fight those, which would have been fucking awesome to see, but he has no contact with them at all. The demons show up to terrorize the city and that’s what they do because it looks cool. Events in the movie are only connected because someone in the cast says they are, and not because of any actual connections. The movie is just made up of setpieces that look really cool.
There are scenes that vaguely echo scenes from Helboy II, in this remake, but without any of the emotional payoff, because although we’ve been given backstories we still don’t know any of these characters. Everyone remembers the fight scene between Hellboy and the Forest God, in Hellboy 2, and the haunting and beautiful music and images when the creature dies. Here, the music is forgettable, action film noise.
Like I said, its not that the Hellboy reboot is a bad movie. I watched it, and liked the way it looked, but it is a bad movie compared to the excellence of the first two films that came before it, and it’s too soon after those movies that this one was made. And people definitely compared them and found the remake wanting because no one went to see this movie. Hell, I didn’t even go see this movie. In all fairness though, it would have been really hard for any film maker to follow in the footsteps of the mastery of Del Toro, who has a reason for every single thing you will see on the screen, right down to his use of colors, and it feels like Marshall either didn’t understand the assignment, or did not try as hard as he should have to make the movie his own, as he seemed to be aping bits and pieces from the original films, or in some scenes trying really hard not to ape those scenes.
I think this new film suffers from too much plot (We’ve got Merlin, Excalibur, witches, fairies, dragons, demons, were-animals, giants, spiritualists, and knights) and simply not enough character, since it’s the characters in the original films which drew us into the ridiculous idea of a giant red devil-man in a trench coat, running through the streets of New York City, chasing Cthulhu demons on subway trains, a telepathic fishman, and a woman who can control fire, all fighting an ancient Nazi wannabe, an Urban Elf King, or tiny winged creatures that eat teeth! Yes, it’s all utterly ridiculous! But we cared about the characters and believed their relationships, and so were willing to sit with the craziness of these stories.
This reboot was adapted from at least four different Hellboy comics by the actual writer, Mike Mignola, and none of those books are related either, which accounts for the disjointed plot here. It’s like Mignola saw a chance to throw a bunch scenes from his favorite comic books up on the screen, and then tried to flimsily make these plots stick to each other.
I tried. I really did. But I just didn’t care about Alice or even Hellboy because there’s simply nothing there to grasp. Ian McShane is wasted, swanning in from time to time to yell at Hellboy and then he’s gone. Daniel Dae Kim is also completely wasted as a were jaguar who is cranky for no reason, and doesn’t show up until near the end of the movie, and his disappointing special effects made me roll my eyes, which is not, I think, the effect the creators were looking for. These are empty characters who are going through the motions of the plot. I did like, of all the characters, Baba Yaga, who was absotively awesome, and quite frankly, I would’ve preferred the entire plot be just her and Hellboy playing a game of cat and mouse over whatever machinations she was getting up to.
I remember I was excited for this movie because of the trailer, but ultimately I walked away disappointed. Not because it’s so awful, because I’ve watched much worse films than this, but because I kept seeing what could have been, if there had been better editing, character development, and a leaner and meaner plot.
Warnings: lots of gore and violence.