Sunday, July 13, 2008

I'll never forget the first time I read a Hellboy graphic novel- it was 1994, and I had purchased the trade paperback of Seeds of Destruction, which I had been eyeballing for some time. I don't exactly recall why I hadn't been buying the single issues- while I was not yet a fan, I was intrigued at how Mignola's style had shifted from the stylized-but-Frazetta-inspired work that had graced the pages of Rocket Raccoon, on through the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser adaptations for Marvel/Epic, and getting progressively more streamlined in the adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula for Topps Comics. Guess perhaps I was reluctant to take a shot on an unknown character, perhaps I just overlooked them on the racks- unimaginable now, but that was before Mignola became MIGNOLA. Anyway, when my comics shop got in the trade, I took a shot and dropped the fifteen or so bucks, and took it home after work one Friday evening. Of course, this being 1994, I had to watch the new episode of X-Files first, but when I finally settled in, after the kids went to bed, I gave it a read. And boy, was I hooked. I loved this character- aside from Mignola's dynamic art, he had created a character that was gruff and no-nonsense, but also capable and very charismatic. I liked this demon guy and the world he inhabited, as presented to us by Mignola and (at first) John Byrne; it spoke to my love of pulp-style adventure as well as supernatural folklore, and I couldn't wait to read more. Since then, I haven't missed a series, even buying a few of the not-bad but not-always-satisfying prose novels, as well as the B.P.R.D. spinoffs, and nearly all of them have been at least entertaining, in different degrees, and some have been among the best comics I've ever read.

So of course, when the character made the transition to film, I was right there when the first Hellboy movie made its debut in 2004 (gosh, it doesn't seem that long ago!), and my reaction was, to be kind, mixed. As with its predecessor, HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY is a solid action picture with an exceptional visual panache, courtesy of its imaginative director. Also, as with its predecessor, my biggest problem is in its depiction of the lead. The Hellboy of the comics, the one I like, and have followed for over a decade now, is not the same character that is on the big screen- and while I understand that concessions have to be made and streamlining is inevitable, the Hellboy I like isn't as surly, rude, and childish as the scriptwriters and Ron Perlman make him seem. In the books, HB is respected by everyone in the Bureau, here, he's a pain in the ass as much as anything, making him a lovable lug, I guess, but one wonders why it's necessary. I dislike the whole "secret government agency" angle; it's always been my understanding that the BPRD is an above-ground agency that goes out of its way to avoid the spotlight. How can Hellboy be "the World's Greatest Paranormal Investigator" if he's relegated to urban legend status, as he's supposed to be in the movie? I didn't like that they trotted out, yet again, the dog-tired X-Men-inspired "unthinking, uncaring humanity hates us because we're freaks" trope. Focus groups and corporate decision-makers may think so, but NONE of this is necessary in order to tell a good Hellboy story. Just isn't.

More than anything, though, I absolutely despise the Hell-boyfriend/Liz Sherman girlfriend subplot that the movies are saddled with; in the comics, this is not an issue. I know, I know- mainstream audiences, always perceived to be a hard sell on movies of this nature, pretty much require some sort of romance or romantic interest for the lead. But to me, the HB/Liz romance is contrivance of the most obvious and unnecessary sort- it demeans both characters, and gives these films a "chick-flick", for lack of a better term, dimension that just grates. And I won't spoil, but there's a development in this romance which I am not looking forward to seeing developed.

Other characters get spotlights- the HB/Abe friendship gets better treatment, and the whole Barry Manilow scene is cutesy but charming, injecting a little needed humor. Fine. Abe's characterization is pretty consistent with not only the previous film but the books as well; that's mostly because he doesn't really have a personality to speak of in either. He's a persnickety, prim and proper fella, who's as refined and cultured as HB is crude and rude, we get it. At least in the comics Mignola gives him a spooky sort of detached nobility, but that doesn't come across in the movie because he's Robin to HB's Batman here. His romance, such as it was, with the Elven Princess was handled well, but really wasn't developed. Of course, this is not surprising because we only have so much film to work with. Selma Blair is still a natural as Liz Sherman, as good here as she was in the previous film; unfortunately, she isn't given much to do except act pissed off most of the time...she does it very well, I must say. Johann Krauss, the "ghost in the bag" of the comics, makes his first appearance; at first I was a little offput by his portrayal but the more I thought about it, I began to like it- in the B.P.R.D. stories, he just kinda gets added to the team because he is part of the spirit world and was necessary in that function. But in the film, he's brought in to ride herd over the HB/Liz/Abe trio, at first overbearing and priggish but eventually fitting in with the team. The ghost effects and his containment suit looked great. Another reason Krauss is added is as help for Jeffery Tambor's Tom Manning character; as the director of the team, he of course butts heads with Hellboy, and is usually played for laughs, as only Tambor can do- no one does weak-willed blowhards better. Still, it bothered me because I thought HB and Manning came to a kind of understanding in the first film, even bonding a bit over the "wood matches for cigars" thing. In the sequel, we're back to antagonism- and while Manning's character often has it coming, it's as if the first film's events are conveniently forgotten.

OK, that's enough bitching about characterization. Script-wise, this is actually fine- the dialogue is very good, and while I disagree with how some of the characters are portrayed and a couple of the plot wrinkled come across as quite random, they interact well and the action setpieces blend in well with the downtimes in between. It moves at a brisk pace, rarely drags, and there's dramatic tension in all the right places. Of course, the ideas, such as the Troll Market, the pasture in Ireland that hides the entrance to where the Golden Army is hidden, the clever tying in of the calcium-devouring "tooth fairies", are all very Mignolaesque, and I'm sure reflects his input. In fact, this whole "Fairie kingdom declares war on humankind rather than fade away" is something that's been kinda simmering on the backburner in the comics; there have been countless scenes of the shadowy fen folk standing in the shadows and lamenting their eventual extinction- it fits right in to the whole mythos, both page and screen. There weren't too many instances where I was bugged by scientific impossibilities; This is a SPOILER, highlight to read: I did wonder why Hellboy gave the crown to Liz at the end to melt with her heat; you'd think that the amount of heat necessary to do such a thing would have incinerated Abe and burned up Krauss' containment suit. I would think it would have made more sense to have HB just crush the crown in his big stone hand, and probably more fitting as well.

And the visuals- well, if you've seen Pan's Labrynth, you know what Del Toro's imagination (and that of his effects crews) is capable of. The aforementioned Troll Market (made me wish for a big-screen adaptation of Neverwhere), the battle with the plant elemental (reminded me of Swamp Thing, it did) and its surprisingly lovely aftermath, the scene in the Irish countryside (brightly lit, a stunning contrast from the rest of the darkly lit film settings) in which the gateway to the Golden Army's "barracks" reveals itself, reminiscent of the "rock-biter" in the otherwise heinous Neverending Story- all pulled off with aplomb.

Anyway, I guess I'm in the minority in my reaction to these films; most seem to be content with this calculated-for-maximum-appeal Hellboy and his friends. And really, this is not a deal-breaker for me either. The pros of the Hellboy movies so far outweigh the cons, and I can tell you that if you're on the fence, and aren't too attached to the comics version, you'll have a great time at The Golden Army. me, I'm attached and still came away enjoying it. It's a lean, mean, imaginative action film/monster movie, and I'm glad that we live in a time that such material can be given the presentation that would have been unthinkable in Hollywood as far back as 1993, when the character saw print for the first time. I hope that if and when we get another sequel, this will always be the case.

No comments: