Oh, hell no! In another diversity-derangement departure from a movie’s source material, the badly rebooted and needlessly vulgar “Hellboy” miscasts dreadlocked African-American/Maori actress Sasha Lane as the hero’s girlfriend Alice Monaghan, who was a fair and freckled Irish redhead in the comics.
Political Correctness Pandering Plagues the Film
While that kind of political-correctness pandering would be offensive simply on a #FictionalCharacterLivesMatter basis, what makes it even more insulting here is that Alice is not a mere interchangeable background extra within the Hellboy canon. In what many fans regard as Hellboy creator Mike Mignola’s single best story in the character’s 25-year comics history (“The Corpse”), Irish Alice was abducted as a baby in Ireland by fairies who replaced her with a changeling. In Hellboy’s efforts to rescue her from the local “little folk,” he encounters a fairy king from Irish mythology. When Hellboy meets Alice again as an adult in a later story, she reveals that she has had many more encounters with the region’s fairies while growing up. She eventually is chosen by the Irish fairy queen to take her crown and be caretaker of the refuge where fairies have fled to escape our world.
In other words, the movie’s indefensible decision to change Alice’s regional and ethnic heritage makes about as much sense as if a white actor were cast to star in Marvel’s “Black Panther.” Sure, the filmmakers could use the tortured excuse that T’Challa’s Wakandan family tree included immigrant and mixed marriage branches, but the switch still would look ridiculous.
What makes Alice’s race change even more awkward is that white actor Ed Skrein made news last year by withdrawing from the role of Major Ben Daimio in “Hellboy,” after the production was accused of “whitewashing” that Japanese-American comics character. A statement from the producers and studios involved said, “It was not our intent to be insensitive to issues of authenticity and ethnicity, and we will look to recast the part with an actor more consistent with the character in the source material.” Skrein was replaced by Daniel Dae Kim, who actually was born in South Korea and not Japan. That “all Asians are Asian” fix wouldn’t seem sufficient to resolve the issue for anyone who was initially and easily offended, and may even have added “close enough” insult to “who cares” injury.
The Plot Falls Short
Identity politics aside, the movie is an unsatisfying amalgam of several comics stories, and may be even more frustrating for fans than 2004’s “Hellboy” and 2008’s “Hellboy II: The Golden Army.” Both of those installments were directed and written by Guillermo del Toro, who took painful liberties that made the franchise come off like a cross between “Ghostbusters” and “Men in Black.” His worst mistake was turning Hellboy into a government-denied secret who fought monsters while remaining in hiding. (In the comics, Hellboy is featured on the cover of Life magazine at age three, granted honorary human status by the UN, and is well known as an agent of the also-not-secret Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense.) His second worst blunder was making firebrand fellow agent Liz Sherman Hellboy’s girlfriend, who reveals she is pregnant with twins at the end of the second movie.
New “Hellboy” director Neil Marshall (who helmed 2005’s excellent horror flick “The Descent” and episodes of “Game of Thrones”) has jettisoned every supporting character from those movies except Hellboy’s surrogate father Professor Bruttenholm (now played by Ian McShane), who adopted Hellboy when he was brought to Earth as a child in 1944 during a botched Nazi magic ritual. David Harbour (“Stranger Things”) plays the adult Hellboy, a supernaturally strong half-demon whose broken-off horns have left stumps on his forehead and whose huge “right hand of doom” is made of stone.
The good news is that this Hellboy is not kept under wraps and is free to appear in public now, where people know who he is. The bad news is that Harbour doesn’t look or act nearly as well in the role as Ron Perlman did. Harbour’s Hellboy is hairier, lummox-like, and often appears perplexed or just plain dumb.
This Hellboy also comes off as immature, petulant, and childish, which is completely at odds with his deadpan and often thoughtful working-stiff persona in print. What makes his surly-teen attitude completely inappropriate here is that much of the cobbled-together Andrew Cosby screenplay is badly derived from the two excellent Hellboy comics arcs “The Wild Hunt” and “The Storm and The Fury.” In those comics, the character is somberly resigned to the inevitability of his own death and bitter about his destiny to become the Beast of the Apocalypse. The stories have an elegant air of melancholy seriousness and painful self-assessment that is utterly lacking onscreen.
For example, in the comic, Hellboy has an invisibility charm that would let him bypass a trio of giants. He is ashamed later that an undeniable bloodlust makes him slaughter them instead. In the movie, there’s no invisibility charm, and Hellboy simply kills the giants in an almost slapstick display of self-defense. Big difference.
Characters Would Be Better With More Restraint
McShane’s crass and hammy Professor Bruttenholm is also a poor substitute for now-deceased John Hurt’s more restrained and faithful portrayal of the character in the earlier movies. Also, the character is long dead in the comics by the time these events take place, so he shouldn’t even be here. (Major Daimio also is not part of these stories in the comics.)
McShane’s performance is representative of the movie as a whole, which often is so loud, contrived and broadly played that it veers into embarrassing too-much-nonsense camp. Also, the movie’s R rating apparently was regarded as license to employ variations of the F word with tiresome frequency, and to spill outrageous quantities of blood. Derisive audience laughter at the screening I attended was annoying, but not unexpected.
The movie’s Big Bad is plague-bringing witch Nimue, a.k.a. The Blood Queen (Milla Jovovich). The screenplay’s most embarrassingly wrong addition to her story comes when she is seen in dismembered pieces on a sofa watching TV, operating the remote with her disembodied arm. If Mignola were dead, that scene alone might be enough to make him spin in his grave.
(To be fair, in a pronouncement that qualifies as one of life’s great mysteries, Mignola has said the screenplay has “taken pieces of so many of my stories and fit them together in a way that really works.” Considering that even the ending of the combined stories is changed, and by far for the worse, that statement is simply baffling.)
Lane’s Alice, aside from looking all wrong and swearing constantly, has been transformed into a psychic medium who channels spirits by vomiting out the upper bodies of the deceased mounted on what look like thick, snaky intestines. Amazingly, this looks even sillier than it sounds.
A pig-monster named Gruagach (voiced by Stephen Graham), a genuinely tragic figure from the comics who bears a grudge against Hellboy and allies himself with Nimue, has been reduced to a blusteringly foulmouthed and almost comic foil.
The real tragedy here is that a lot of the monstrous creatures, special effects, and overall production design look good enough that the same technical crew probably could have pulled off a respectfully faithful adaptation of Mignola’s work with class, if the screenwriter and director hadn’t desecrated the source material by altering so much of its tone. What they did to “Hellboy” is a damn shame.