Stranger Things star David Harbour gets lost in prosthetics – and director Neil Marshall has learned nothing from Guillermo del Toro
HELLBOY (Neil Marshall). 120 minutes. Some subtitles. Opens Friday (April 12). See listing. Rating: NN
Okay, so I owe Guillermo del Toro an apology.
See, while I loved del Toro’s first Hellboy movie – a mixture of superhero nonsense, monster adventure and appealing humanity – I wasn’t terribly enamoured of his follow-up, 2008’s The Golden Army. I thought it was beautiful to look at, but that it got lost in the world it had built – that del Toro was so eager to show us his entire sketchbook that he forgot he was here to tell a story.
Having seen the new Hellboy, directed by Neil Marshall and scripted by Andrew Cosby – again, using Mike Mignola’s comic-book tales of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense as their jumping-off point – I am more than willing to give The Golden Army a second chance. And maybe even a third.
Del Toro’s sequel may not have been a conventional superhero movie, but it told the story it wanted to tell, boasted some fine performances and featured the delightfully cranky Ron Perlman in the role he was born to play – a seven-foot-tall, candy-apple red demon hunter whose personal neuroses are at least as important to the story as the latest world-ending threat.
Perlman and del Toro are deeply missed in the new film, which casts Stranger Things’ David Harbour as the eponymous hero, stands him at the centre of the frame and just throws shit at him for two hours – vampires, giants, ghosts, zombies, swords, spears, Arthurian legends, English secret societies, Baba Yaga and a warthog-faced troll – as he tries to stop Milla Jovovich’s resurrected Blood Queen from unleashing literal Hell on Earth. (There’s also a were-leopard in there, but he’s not necessarily an enemy.)
It’s not Harbour’s fault the new Hellboy doesn’t work. It starts with the lighting, which makes him look like an actor in a creature suit rather than an actual creature the elaborate facial prosthetics don’t blend into his features so much as bury them. There’s nothing for us to connect with emotionally. And where del Toro trusted Perlman to develop Hellboy’s persona as a mixture of swagger and sheepishness, Marshall gives Harbour just one note to play: cranky John Goodman. Which is fun for a while, but eventually you realize the actual John Goodman would be a lot more interesting.
The reboot keeps the basics of Hellboy’s origin (demon baby conjured by Nazi occultists to serve Hitler, but rescued by Allied paranormal specialists and raised as a hero despite a prophecy that has him ushering in a mystical apocalypse), but if you’re looking for your other favourite characters, firestarter Liz Sherman and fish-man Abe Sapien, they’re not around yet.
Hellboy 2.0 offers a new cast of freaky friends, specifically American Honey’s Sasha Lane as know-it-all psychic Alice Monaghan and Lost’s Daniel Dae Kim as a British paranormal agent Ben Daimio, with Ian McShane offering sage wisdom as Hellboy’s adoptive father (and BPRD handler) Professor Broom.
All of these actors are interesting people, and might have been able to engage us here, but the movie won’t let them breathe it’s constantly whipping them from one location to the next, poisoning them or beating them or throwing them through walls. The action and yelling pauses twice to flash back to Hellboy’s origin story – which involves more action and yelling.
I wouldn’t argue that only Guillermo del Toro can make a decent Hellboy movie surely there are other filmmakers who can find the characters’ eccentric charm and shape a movie around it. Marshall doesn’t even bother, disregarding the road map of del Toro’s movies but finding nothing to replace it but an intrusive metal soundtrack and a surfeit of CG viscera that puts his Game Of Thrones episodes to shame.
It’s especially disappointing because the director’s early features Dog Soldiers, The Descent and Doomsday had such nimble, genre-savvy style it seems the bigger his budget, the less he’s inclined to innovate. Hellboy deserves a scrappier artist behind the camera.
Sorry, Red. Maybe next time.