Straight to Hell

A few spoilers ahead.

Guillermo del Toro with cast. I like Abe Sapiens’ posture here.

Fiona’s a massive Guillermo del Toro fan, and I generally like him. Our favourite is THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE.

So it was with some excitement we sloped off to a preview screening of HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY, but with disappointment we sloped out afterwards. The excellent reviews seemed as if they were written under the spell of PAN’S LABYRINTH, which got the raves that DEVIL’S BACKBONE deserved.

While HELLBOY suffers from too little variety on the monster front, but is somewhat redeemed by a genuinely sweet love story (a complete departure from Mike Mignola’s endearingly simplistic comic book) and some imaginative visuals, the sequel has more monsters than you can shake a Fist of Doom at, but the emotional side is distinctly lacking, while the plot is pretty thin too. It reminds me more than anything of Clive Barker’s NIGHTBREED, a film so packed with monsters as to boggle the mind. Beautiful monsters. But the moviemakers don’t have the slightest idea what to DO with them all.

It all leads me to consider the difficulty of the action movie. The supposed formula of delivering some kind of action every ten minutes (does anybody really do this? I think maybe they do, although the action needn’t be a huge set-piece) creates particular problems for this kind of cinema, since rarely does the action progress the plot or develop the characters, so that the film takes twice as long to tell what’s probably a simple enough story. BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT may be complicated as these things go, but it could probably accomplish its narrative goals in 90 minutes if it didn’t have to keep suspending the plot for another spot of rubber-clad judo.

Extreme examples: Anthony Waller’s AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS, which kind of sank his briefly-promising career, features an extended escape sequence with a chase, a  fight, and a recapture, resulting in the character back where they started, absolutely no further forward in the story; Peter Jackson’s KING KONG, in which the character who can’t shoot a gun can suddenly shoot brilliantly, the goddamn screenwriter is a vine-swinging super-Tarzan and the chubby film director can outrun a raptor.

It’s perfectly possible to use an action sequence to move the plot forward, by having the characters progress towards a goal. And it’s not only possible but NOT HARD to have them stay in character while they do it. One positive thing about HELLBOY is how good Ron Perlman is at doing superhuman stuff in a human way (but the catchphrase “Oh crap,” needs to be retired).

An action movie can obey the rules of basic narrative and still not be particularly good, but it certainly helps if attention is paid to human nature and storytelling and those things. The only alternative would be a kind of playfulness, as attempted in the CHARLIE’S ANGELS films, which are actually kind of radical in the way they ignore all but the most basic story concerns and try to get by on variety: colour, sexiness, jokes and music. But that is hard, almost impossible to sustain over feature length, and even if you manage to pass the time there’s a danger that the audience won’t feel it’s really experienced anything.

HELLBOY II’s weakest scenario may be the fight with the elemental, a giant Miyazaki-like abstract tree spirit, conjured by bad guy Luke Goss (!) for no real reason, and killed by Hellboy without affecting the outcome of anything else. The sole purpose of this expensive set-piece seems to be to show the public turning on Hellboy, an X-Men / Spiderman trope that was, incredibly, handled better in both those series.

There’s also a lot of slightly crude “humour”, much of which is jarring and unfunny. Throwing in “schwanstucker” references after the story’s quasi-tragic denouement just seems crass. New guy Johann Krauss has an interesting look (del Toro’s sketches have been transformed into great costumes by Sammy Sheldon) and a cool backstory (not given in the film), but basically becomes the pretext for a bunch of lame German jokes.

Probably the most foolish decision was to announce a major character’s pregnancy and then do nothing with it. Watching Hellboy deal with the prospect of fatherhood is all very well, but can’t compare to the fun we could have seeing the actuality of Red as a proud pop. Del Toro is obviously saving this up for the putative threequel, which seems a parsimonious approach to this paying customer. If you’ve got a better story to tell, TELL IT.

It doesn’t help that the direction seems lacklustre. Wipes are usually a sign of a film in trouble — here they’re a development of that cutting pattern deployed in PAN’S LABYRINTH, where the camera passes behind something dark and emerges in a new scene, but the device has been amped up to the level of nervous tic. Del Toro does it so often I started to expect a slick digital transition whenever anybody walked past the lens.

Being overpraised for weak work can be as damaging to a filmmaker as being slated for good work. My best hope for del Toro is that he abandon series-based films (his next project, THE HOBBIT, fills me with foreboding) and settle down to tell some complete stories again.

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4 Responses to “Straight to Hell”

  1. I think you’re being too hard on the film. The Elemental does appear for a reason – to make HB make a decision as to who he is fighting for. While he makes that decision, it does not sit well with him, especially considering the bollocking he gets straight afterwards from the ungrateful humans he has just saved. However, I think more should have been made of this later on in the film. Otherwise, great, undemanding fun. As it sometimes should be. To have a go at the action feels a bit too much like Jeffrey Wells’ grouchy stab at the flick. And besiees, should every result be shown? HB being a new dad could fall deeply into schmaltz.

  2. I just looked at Wells’ piece. I think the difference is, I’m not tired of action/destruction per se, actually I pretty much always enjoy destruction on some level. But it needs to be unified with the movie, if the movie is going to be a successful whole. The elemental showdown accomplishes just one thing in narrative terms, but introduces a whole new monster and occupies around ten minutes screen time.
    The idea of Hellboy being tempted to join the other monsters is fine, but he’s never really tempted and so it goes nowhere. It’s doubtful that we’d be afraid of this in film 2 anyway, having got to know the character fairly well by now.
    Red as dad — well, yes it could be schmaltzy, but we seem to be promised this in film 3 anyway (and there are several hints about a further installment), so it’s a problem that will have to be faced if the series continues. Red as expectant dad does very little in story terms except set up a loose end.
    I thought we were in trouble early on when monsters invade the auction room and the snooty auctioneer declares “This is outrageous” A strange reaction to attack by a giant ogre with a wrecking ball for a hand.

  3. Sadly, Dr Horrible seems to cost $1.99 per episode. But I’ll shop around, come back to him if I can’t find a free source.

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