Friday, March 11, 2005

Hellboy, pt.1

Guillermo del Toro, from the noted comic book (graphic novel series, if you prefer) by Mike Mignola


Comic book fans who get excited by the idea of translating their two-dimensional, static enthusiasms into 3-D, moving pictures have seen a high tide of product come their way in the last decade-plus, and that tide just keeps rising. The fans continue to float in this whitewater of anticipation, bobbing up and down, watching for the next big wave, the comic-to-movie translation that will be transcendent; at the announcement of each new effort, the trusting fan is ready to be swept away by the expected force a big screen translation. But when the wave finally comes, more often than not it's just a piddler, over hyped and quickly forgotten (Batman sequels, Daredevil, Elektra, Fantastic Four, even excreable X-Men etc.); the momentary buffeting and splash of the rush to get opening day tickets (for the first matinee!), is followed by a long, frothy emptiness. The fan continuess to float, unsure how to voice disappointment. Loyalty keeps them quiet. And on the lookout for the Next Big Wave.

Can we just say this movie (HELLBOY) seemed strangely dismissive of everything interesting in the comic book? An unusual way for the writer/director to show devotion to Mignola's original creation, by destroying it. Where is the quiet, the slow build of the books, the professionalism of Hellboy, or the adult regard he has for his comrades? Seeing the big screen Hellboy mock the big screen Abe Sapien, his sympatico best friend in the book, (who is here portrayed as an odd C3PO in a rubber suit)—to see him mock him, his partner and friend, in a professional situation!—was to see the easiest, cheap-shot sort of cliché "character" construction… but, why quibble?

I rented the DVD (the doubledisc version, from my stoner-staffed Blockbudster), after finally reading three of the graphic novels, loaned to me by Erik (you know who you are) in support of my efforts to expand my inking horizons. Years and years ago, dear friend Ellis, (ear always to the comix railroad trestle listening for upcoming freight trains), had picked out the first B&W Hellboy story and shared it with me. I hadn't read much Hellboy since then, though I always liked the character, and recognized Mignola as one of the rare comic alchemists able to access that medium's most sublime areas. When the news came out that a movie was to be made, I was happy for Mignola and his fans, and hopeful that they would opt for the off-beat in the books. Erik, who knows much more about this stuff than I, said del Toro was to direct, and that he was well-equiped to do a good job. Didn't he do "Amores Perros"? I asked (a movie I hadn't seen--if my local reviewer, Duncan Shepherd [San Diego Reader] doesn't get excited, it's nearly impossible to get me out to see something). No, man, Erik said, that was that other dude--Del Toro did Kronos. Oh, I heard that was good, I said, (I remembered Shepherd had liked it, but I still hadn't seen it--he may be a Shepherd, but I'm no sheep).


Then I saw the previews for ‘Hellboy’ the movie, which looked to be set in an inexplicably future-ish dystopia, and packed with lots of fast movement from an illegible CG monster and an untethered camera (criminal disregard for the comic’s measured framing, or what some might call its “cool gaze”). Then they showed some slow-mo rage from our eponymous hero, punching some kind of vehicle in front of a lot of nighttime imagery (I could have sworn this was a ‘Blade Runner’ish’ hovercrafty sort of vehicle in the preview, not a Jeep Grand Cherokee). Why I thought the movie looked like it would take place in the future, I don't know. Wind swept trench coats, completely fake looking highways where the wet shine of objects overpowers their physical reality—certainly all well-trod ground displaying no obvious appropriateness to the Hellboy universe that I knew.


I’m sure there is a cinema personage more appropriate to invoke here, but Lewton is a good starting point. He had a brain, after all, and would have been reluctant to spend this much money on a film, two qualities that right off would improve ‘Hellboy’ onehundred percent.

What is the purpose of making a 'Hellboy' movie? Seriously? I'm not saying it shouldn't be done, I'm just asking, so we can get "clarified". Sell more comic books? I think the producers were hoping the comic book would help them sell more movie tickets. Besides making money, what could have been the other motivation? An arrogant assumption that 'they' (del Toro and his producers, Sony Pictures, Hollywood in general) could improve a simple comic book through the application of their 'movie magic?' (Movie Magic these days meaning a few hundred technicians generating computer images of ill-conceived excess.) Perhaps vague hopes that they were producing some kind of mythic document drove the crew, but what we get on-screen regurgitates only the most obvious cinematic antecedents, and in doing so dithers between pretending these obviously recycled elements are vitally original, and pushing them as 'quotation.' Neither tack is very satisfying.


Not on the goddamn screen, either. Watching this movie was a bit of a departure for me, as I generally steer clear of the Hollywood action movie, the comic book movie, the fantasy movie. I haven’t seen one in a long time that features anything like a convincingly thrown punch, let alone a convincing run or jump or entire fight. Why was this, I wondered, watching Hellboy? Because these movies are made by pussies. How else to put it?

Within the first ten minutes of ‘Hellboy’ we’ve got a band of G.I.’s giving up the safety of their ideally situated, protected perimeter location to run headlong into hand to hand combat with a bunch of distracted Nazi’s. The choreography of this scene shows no understanding for combat, movement, or the very real role self-preservation plays in human action. Me, I’d have sat behind that low wall and strafed hell outta’ them krauts—and you would have, too.

The cinema minds behind scenes like this, (and lots of others in this flick, like the totally gratuitous flash-back in the museum showing 8 police officer-types being passively slaughtered), must only come to fighting and killing through watching it in other movies. Any concern for human nature or the dynamics of violence are sloughed off as restraining their “cinematic” vision. But isn’t that one of the only reasons to put violence on screen? To let us see what it is like, to honestly depict it—using stylized cinematic processes, sure, but in the service of finding the truth. Why did those G.I.’s amble out of their superior position to rumble with some freaky Nazi’s? Were they spooked into it? Show that! Why did the 6 policemen stand as close together as possible and wait patiently while the bizarre Nazi Machine-Man sliced them up? Boredom?


I am not one of these nit-picky strategists who delight in questioning the unimportant strategies of onscreen entities; but obviously over-big scenes with no brains behind them and an excess of money upfront make me very suspicious.

The phony action is justified by citing its source (“It’s a comic book!”); but it is not a comic book, it is a movie. The argument that this is a movie, and not a comic book, was used by the producers and director to justify adding a love story and making all kinds of wholesale alterations to Mignola’s original conception (“Hey, it’s a movie, not a comic book!”), but this is ignored when convenient. Without taking the time to explore the enormous difference between sequencing static drawings on a page to depict action, and staging real action using people in costumes, puppets, CG, etc., we should note the prime benefit of the comic-page-to-movie-screen translation should be an increased answerability to the demands of physical logic. Dropping this ball and then blaming the source material is disingenuous, hypocritical, ignorant and anti-cinematic.


Ron Perlman is a fine actor, and I looked forward to his presence in this--well, to be honest, I don't really know how good an acctor he is, but he's an unlikely movie star, which makes me root for him, and as a kind of ugly behemoth, his physicality looked useful for a project like this. My hopes for the success of any ‘Hellboy’ franchise were for his sake, and Mignola’s. But they somehow confused Hellboy the character with Wolverine the X-Men franchise character, something Mignola never did in the comic. His “too-cool-for-this” attitude and lukewarm misanthropy were cliché the film-makers substituted for character. And I honestly believe that's the core reason this film received tepid attention. We've seen this character before, and it doesn't fit in here. If you've already got a nasty looking monster for your hero, (a bull of a hero, a monsteer), you are over-emphasizing if you "push" his ugly personality. And if the actor is already laboring under 25 pounds of facial prosthetics, you don't need to exaggerate his sense of "separation" from the world--he's already darn separated!

Oh, and how about the decision to add into the story a neophyte agent who is assigned to work with the resistant agency veteran Hellboy, only to win over Hellboy after proving himself worthy in the heat of combat? I thought that was original….


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