Review: Hellboy never stood a chance in hell

When I finally went to college, I suddenly realized that I could pretty much do whatever I want since my parents weren’t around to tell me otherwise. This mostly translated into eating whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, and as much as I wanted. Two semesters and four pants sizes later, I learned a valuable lesson: Just because I could doesn’t always mean that I should. Much like the end of my freshman year, the team behind Hellboy learned this lesson much too late.

Before I started writing this review, I tried to convince myself not to spend the whole time talking about how far superior Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy run was, but the more I think about it, the less I can keep that promise. The two previous Hellboy films were both PG-13, but even then they didn’t shy away from violence. You really can’t have Hellboy, AKA World Destroyer AKA Beast of the Apocalypse AKA the Right Hand of Doom, without there being some sort of fighting or destruction involved. Del Toro has never shied away from that, but in his films, he focuses on crafting a world full of whimsy and mayhem, and then has the brutality become a part of it. Where this new Hellboy goes wrong is that instead of having the violence and carnage being the result of the plot or story, the film treats it like it’s a character all its own.

Director Neil Marshall, who has brought us forgettable, over-stylized films like Doomsday and Centurion, give the Hellboy universe the same treatment. With it’s new, hard R rating, Marshall goes above and beyond to push the limits, but not in any constructive way. He mainly focuses on copious amounts of blood and more gore than you get from even the messiest slasher film. Where del Toro put an emphasis on the magical nature of the unseen world, Marshall tries to distinguish his film by focusing on the hellish aspect creating scenes of blood and dismemberment that would make even Spawn blush. This darker take would be a problem at all were it not for the seeming pointlessness of it all. For a few scenes, this corporal brutality works perfectly, but for most of them, it is literally overkill.

Perhaps it wouldn’t be such an eyesore if visuals didn’t look like something out of an early 2000’s film. The first Hellboy came out in 2004, and even it had visual effects that still hold up today. Everything from the CGI characters to the horrible animated blood and even the obvious green screen landscapes makes you appreciate the visual opulence of every single Fantastic Four film. Yes, even the unreleased 1994 Fantastic Four film was more appealing than this film. If it weren’t for the previous Hellboy films, we wouldn’t have a standard set for every subsequent film. Guillermo del Toro’s use of practical effects, magnificent creature design and use of make-up and prosthetics over CGI all make for an engaging cinematic experience whose attention to detail shows you just how much the filmmakers care about their film.

Really the only good character design in this new Hellboy is Hellboy himself, and much of that is because actor David Harbour does a good job in bringing him to life. His one-liners and nonchalant attitude embody the character well-enough to almost make up for the nonsense story that ultimately feels like it is filler meant to take you from one battle to the next. The performances are the most enjoyable part of the entire film, but aside from Harbour, the only other two people who breathe life into this film are Ian McShane and Sasha Lane, who play Professor Broom and Alice Monaghan, respectively. Even our main villain (aside from the filmmakers), Milla Jovovich who plays the Blood Queen, feels like she is just rehashing a mix of the other villains she has played in the past.

As a reboot for the Hellboy franchise, this film crashes and burns. With enough wanton gore and guts to drown a small island, it ends up getting lost in a sea of red. Great characters could have been enough to save the ill-conceived, lazy story, but even those were mostly hard to come by. Somewhere, Guillermo del Toro just finished watching this film and thought to himself, “They didn’t let me finish my trilogy for THIS?! To hell with them.” To hell with them, indeed.

Daniel Dae Kim in Hellboy Is Better, but Still Problematic

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Image courtesy of Gizmodo

Daniel Dae Kim will play Ben Daimio in the third Hellboy film, Hellboy: Rise of the Blood Queen, a role previously offered to obviously white actor Ed Skrein. To Skrein’s credit, he turned down the role, saying, in part, “[R]epresenting this character in a culturally accurate way holds significance for people, and that to neglect this responsibility would continue a worrying tendency to obscure ethnic minority stories…I have decided to step down so the role can be cast appropriately.” While Kim is unquestionably a better choice, he’s still not the best choice or even necessarily a good choice for a simple reason.

 

Captain Benjamin Daimio is Japanese American (and for anyone who hasn’t read BPRD, he’s also the grandson of the Crimson Lotus). Daniel Dae Kim is a Korean American actor who was born in Busan, South Korea and moved to the United States when he was two years old. He needed to relearn Korean for his breakout role as Jin-Soo Kwon in Lost.

 

Korea is not Japan. Japan is a large archipelago country that dates to prehistory and has a complicated relationship with the United States. Korea is a smaller peninsular country that has been the homeland from one to three kingdoms in the past, and is currently divided in two. They are geographically separate places with their own vastly different cultures, mythologies, languages, and histories. And the idea that there’s “no difference” must end. Sure, white people in this country might not be offended if they were mistaken for Irish instead of German, but see how that would fly in Europe itself. To act above such necessary acts of intelligence and sensitivity betrays one’s privilege.

 

In accepting the role, Kim said, “I’m excited to confirm that I’ve officially joined the cast of Hellboy…I applaud the producers and, in particular, Ed Skrein for championing the notion that Asian characters should be played by Asian or Asian American actors.” I don’t fault Kim for accepting the role. He’s a great actor, deserves his share of great parts, and has earned several awards. He has been vocal about the pay disparity between his white costars and himself on Hawaii Five-O.

 

I fault the Hollywood casting practices that have conflated the entire continent of Asia yet again. This is the casting equivalent of shrugging and asking, “Korean? Japanese? What’s the difference?”

 

It’s too bad casting directors didn’t think to call Ken Watanabe, Shun Oguri, Takeshi Kitano, Jin Akanishi, Takeshi Kaneshiro, or Toma Ikuta to portray Ben Daimio. If you think I had those names in my back pocket as some sort of “gotcha” tactic, they were simply the first six results of the Google search for “list of Japanese actors,” an action that took me all of two seconds, but was still too much effort for whoever is in charge of casting Hellboy. I would have used the results for “list of Japanese American actors,” but that includes three dead people and two women. As much as I would like to entertain the possibility of a female Ben Daimio, how awesome would it be to see Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Star Trek: The Next Generation, Mortal Kombat) in the role?

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Image courtesy of IMDb

The notion of the Asian monolith has proven persistent and is just as harmful as any other racist stereotype plaguing POC actors. The Sanctum Sanctorum of Doctor Strange was supposed to be in Tibet, but the set designer settled on “P.F. Chang’s waiting area” instead of drawing on any particularities of any of the 48 countries that make up a continent larger than North America. I’ll probably still see Hellboy, but Hollywood can’t be congratulated for doing a better job when that “better job” still amounts to racism.