Imagine that you’re remaking a movie. It has an avid, if relatively small, fan base. It was made by a beloved director. The fans are unsure if this new version could ever live up to the original. What do you do?
I’m no expert, but I would try and establish an identity completely different from the original.
In some ways, Neil Marshall’s “Hellboy,” which was released just 15 years after Guillermo del Toro’s acclaimed take on the half-demon hero, does distinguish itself. However, Marshall and writer Andrew Crosby also had the audacity to recreate the story of Hellboy’s creation in a scene remarkably similar to del Toro’s vision.
It doesn’t go well.
This scene opens the 2004 version. In it, a squad of Nazi paranormal troopers collaborate with the ancient Russian sorcerer, Rasputin, to summon a demon from the depths of hell. It’s a remarkable spectacle of gothic fantasy meshed with war imagery, a meshing of the modern and fantastical that would define del Toro’s vision.
The 2019 version uses strikingly similar set design, and even Rasputin and his underlings seem to pay homage to the original. But here, the goal seems not to evoke a sense of wonder or otherworldliness, but to set the stage for action. Rasputin is turned into Swiss cheese in seconds, and the rest of the Nazi squadron is gunned down in a dizzying barrage of blood and broken bones.
One scene seemed to grasp the true joy of Hellboy’s universe: mythologies and folklore combine with new twists, all anchored down by the titular character, whose hulking demon body hides a true desire to do good.
The other? Well, it has some gore.
Thus defines the rest of “Hellboy,” which spills buckets of blood and piles of intestines – literally – on the screen, but forgets to include a spirit, heart or brain.
It’s hard to place the blame on the man behind the shaved horns, David Harbour. The actor, of “Stranger Things” fame, has the right demeanor and delivery to make it work. It’s not hard to be a walking, grumbling makeup display.
However, there is almost no characterization to be had in this film. Whereas the first screen incarnation loved cats, candy bars and an unstable pyrokinetic woman, this one does nothing but drink and say a few corny catch phrases after a fight. Take away all the quirks that make the character sympathetic, and the viewer is left with nothing to, you know, care about.
This issue extends to the rest of Hellboy’s team. In the originals, Abe Sapian was a delightfully idiosyncratic fish-man whose ability to recognize other people’s feelings let him pull back Hellboy’s gruff exterior and find his mushy interior. Meanwhile, Liz Sherman felt her relationship with Hellboy kept her from living the peaceful life she wanted. Also, she could catch on fire.
Who do we have this time around? Well, there’s Ben Daimio, a special operative with a dark secret and a penchant for getting in minor quips with Hellboy. We also have Alice Monaghan, a young woman whose past with Hellboy is explained in shoddily paced flashbacks. As a medium, her purpose in the movie is to let dead people speak, becoming a mouthpiece for other characters, rather than a well-defined one of her own.
You might be thinking, “Is it fair to judge this simply by the merits of the original?” That’s a fair point. It annoys me when fans of the source material shy away from any deviations. But, examining the merits of “Hellboy” on its own will not yield better results.
From the first scene’s voice-over narration of the bad guy’s origins, the story is just a collection of scenes in which characters explain what’s happening. Sometimes, they explain it to the audience, then take the time explaining it to each other. It explains to us the conflict between humans and monsters when the screenplay takes no time to let it naturally manifest. Before you know it, the climax hits, and the characters explain the otherwise-nonexistent stakes to us.
The film’s villain, The Blood Queen (Milla Jovovich), gets nothing to do. That is not an exaggeration. Though her body count starts to climb towards the finale, the character herself is static on the screen. What was meant to be mythical and enchanting comes off as exceedingly dull.
And the music? Oh, man.
A vicious heavy metal soundtrack would’ve at least added some much-needed character. Instead, we get mind-numbingly bland radio-rock. It wants to sound like a rock-n-rolling monster hunter, but instead reminds me of those beer commercials with a bunch of guys being bros in a bar.
How do you ruin a fight scene between Hellboy and three massive giants? Set it to the tune of “Psycho” by Muse.
At the end of the day, all that “Hellboy” has to offer is incredibly brutal violence. Unless you’ve never seen blood before – or if you like seeing blood a bit too much – then this is not interesting. Director Marshall handled such gruesome content much better in his 2005 film “The Descent.” In fact, that film did just about everything better.
There I go again with the comparisons. It’s just that sometimes, when something has no personality, you have to find something else to talk about.