A Flop From Hell My World of Flops Case File #136/My Year of Flops II #33 Hellboy (2019)
When other, lesser filmmakers have walked in the great Guillermo Del Toro’s footsteps the results have not been pretty. After Del Toro elevated the Blade series to giddy new heights with his wonderfully overachieving 2002 cult classic Blade II the franchise came crashing down to earth with 2004’s more or less universally reviled Blade: Trinity.
Similarly, when television wiz Steven S. DeKnight took over directing duties for Pacific Rim: Uprising, the sequel to Del Toro’s beloved robots vs. monsters docudrama Pacific Rim, the result was a big old flop with critics and audiences alike. It’s almost as if Del Toro’s tremendous talent is what made Pacific Rim and Blade II successful, not the intellectual property involved.
That dynamic held true for 2019’s Hellboy as well. Del Toro lovingly shepherded Mike Mignola’s cult comic about a sardonic half-demon fighting supernatural beasties to the big screen with 2004’s Hellboy and its even better 2008 sequel Hellboy II: The Golden Army but when The Descent and Dog Soldiers director Neil Marshall rebooted the character with Stranger Things’ David Harbour in the title role instead of Ron Perlman, the result was another big-time dud.
If the idea of bringing back Hellboy minus the writer-director who made the first two films so special seems inherently suspect, there’s a certain commercial logic behind the reboot’s bold new direction. 2016’s Deadpool was a game-changer, a hard-R adaptation of a lesser-known cult comic book anti-hero that seemingly came out of nowhere to gross nearly eight hundred million dollars at the box-office in addition to dominating the cultural conversation for months on end.
Deadpool wasn’t just a success: it was a goddamn sensation, a pop culture phenomena, a big-time motion picture event. So it makes sense to re-conceive Hellboy alone the lines of Deadpool, as a hard R-rated comic book movie for adults (or overgrown 14 year olds) about a wisecracking, sarcastic anti-hero torn between worlds, a man-monster whose humanity is in perpetual conflict with the beast within.
Hellboy and Hellboy II: The Golden Army were both PG-13. For the 2019 Hellboy, however, R doesn’t just represent a rating so much as a strategy. Hellboy makes a conscious decision to go further than necessary. For director Neil Marshall, who comes to Hellboy from the world of horror, there is no such thing as gratuitous violence. In Hellboy, all violence is necessary.
Harbour brings a weary dignity to the role of Hellboy, a hellspawn adopted at an early age and raised as a son by Trevor Bruttenholm (Ian McShane), the founder of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense or B.P.R.D, an organization that keeps track of monsters and beasties and various things that go bump in the night.
Hellboy is a top agent for B.P.R.D but everywhere he goes people want to kill him. Is it any wonder he seems perpetually lost in a haze of low-level depression? We’re all damned in this sick, sad, beautiful world but Hellboy is a special case.
Hellboy begins, nonsensically enough, in olden times. We open in fifth century England, where King Arthur (yes, that King Arthur, the one from the Guy Ritchie movie) defeats a formidable threat posed by evil blood queen Vivian Nimue (Milla Jovovich) by chopping off her head with Excalibur. Then, for good measure, he chops off all her limbs and has them scattered to the four corners of the earth so that she can’t come back millennia later and fuck humanity up.
In an unsurprising turn of events, she does just that when her various body parts are reunited by Gruagach, a boar-man like minion working with one-eyed Russian witch Baba Yaga to bring about the apocalypse with a little help from Hellboy himself.
Hellboy seems equally likely to cause the end of the world or prevent it. Vivian Nimue plays to Hellboy’s divided loyalties. The human world will only ever see him as a monster. Why not join forces with his monster brethren?
Hellboy doesn’t showcase the title character’s gentle side the way Del Toro’s films did. Harbour does not imbue the character with the incongruous but refreshing tenderness that distinguished Perlman’s Hellboy but he does give him a certain gloomy gravitas and a biting, sarcastic sense of humor that doubles as a coping mechanism for dealing with an unrelentingly brutal, violent world.
Harbour has terrific chemistry with McShane. The film’s sweetness comes entirely from the unlikely but powerful father-son bond between Mcshane’s Trevor Bruttenholm, a man who has devoted his life to fighting monsters, and a monster at war with himself and other, more violent and destructive creatures.
Trevor Bruttenholm sees the good in his half-demon adopted son. He is intent on using him as a weapon against evil, a hammer of unlikely righteousness to be wielded against evildoers. It is a testament to what a great actor McShane is that deep into the film there’s a genuinely moving, heartstring-tugging exchange between Trevor and Hellboy during which Trevor essentially takes the form of a giant ghost-sperm delivering fatherly guidance and encouragement.
The plot of Hellboy works best as a monster-delivery system. Marshall goes crazy with the CGI to create a world where monsters of all different types co-exist uneasily and uncomfortably with human beings that, being human, fear and revile that which they do not understand. Hellboy features child-eating witches and fairies and giants and beasties. It owes as much to Grimms’ Fairy Tales and folklore as conventional comic books.
Hellboy throws everything at the wall to see what sticks. It is a film of delirious, intentional excess, overflowing with characters it lacks the time, energy or desire to do anything with, most egregiously with a Nazi and mobster-battling vigilante named Lobster Johnson (Thomas Haden Church) who leaves his trademark lobster claw imprint on the bad guys he battles.
How the hell are you going to introduce a character named Lobster Johnson and then do absolutely nothing with him? Then again there are more monsters in Hellboy than any film could properly handle. Hellboy has monsters of intermittent quality but tremendous quantity.
In a world of cookie-cutter superhero movies, where everything feels so infuriatingly interchangeable Neil Marshall’s bloody reboot of Hellboy deserves credit for looking and feeling legitimately different. It’s the tacky Goth at the superhero table, a creature feature and horror show full of gnarly-looking monsters and great gushing geysers of blood.
Ultra-violence isn’t just an essential component of Hellboy; it’s damn near the film’s whole aesthetic. Hellboy without constant, intense violence would be as impossible to imagine as Goodfellas without profanity.
The highest praise that I can give Hellboy is that at its best, it feels like the cinematic version of a 1980s heavy metal album cover or a 1970s van with an airbrushed Frank Frazetta painting of a barbarian riding a dragon while wielding a flaming sword. It’s fucking metal, man, a head-banging, super-violent superhero movie from hell.
Early in the film, to the rocking sounds of a Spanish cover of The Scorpions’ “Rock You Like a Hurricane”, Hellboy squares off in a Tijuana wrestling ring against Esteban Ruiz, a friend and fellow secret agent who has gone native in the sense that he’s now a vampire like the monsters he was infiltrating, and not one of those sexy, glittering, baseball-playing Twilight vampires either. No, we’re talking a real Man-Bat, Nosferatu, bat-like vampire monster more bat than man.
If the idea of a demon-man battling a bat-like vampire in a Tijuana wrestling ring to the accompaniment of a Scorpions cover sounds appealing then you’ll probably enjoy Hellboy in spite of yourself and its deafeningly loud, terrible buzz. If it does not, then you’re probably better off compulsively re-watching your precious Merchant-Ivory collection.
As for me, I know exactly what side of that divide I stand on. In no small part because my expectations could not have been lower, I was pleasantly surprised by Hellboy. It’s tacky, vulgar, pulpy, ghoulish and unrelentingly violent. That’s a big part of the reason why I dug it.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success
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