Tom Jolliffe looks at when films become pre-occupied with their rating….
We’ve seen this become increasingly more common. A reboot, a remake, or just as a counter to other films in the genre, there comes a desire to market a film as being (almost rebelliously) R rated. This weekend in fact, sees a prime example. Guillermo Del Toro made an enjoyable Hellboy in 2004. It might not have been as violent as some of the comic book incarnations (and given it was such a cult property, the decision to go pg-13 made logical sense). He made an even more enjoyable sequel. Visually dazzling, engaging, wry, witty and imaginative. Were Hellboy fans left feeling particularly short-changed? I never got that sense generally. Did the ‘soft’ rating leave them wishing that HB was a bit fruitier with his language and a bit more violent in his dispatching of villains? I never particularly got that sense either.
We now have a reboot starring David Harbour in place of Ron Perlman. In place of Del Toro we have Neil Marshall as director, but significantly there’s been a fair amount of talk in the build up and marketing that this is very much an adults version of Hellboy. Yes this is Hellboy; A big red spawn of the devil with a giant fist, off saving the world from monsters. What every mature adult male craves apparently. The world didn’t ask for it. The world doesn’t necessarily want it, and overseen by a studio as frustratingly half-assed as Millennium can sometimes be, the reviews for the new Hellboy are pretty negative. Every trailer thus far has looked horrendous (with every visual cliche you can think of and tired, rote dialogue) so the dire reviews are hardly surprising.
There’s a pretty universal consensus too. That in adhering to the much championed R rating they’ve gone for, the film is loaded with tired vulgarities and even more tiresomely over the top violence. This is using R rating as a sales point at its very worst. When fans, even a small minority seem somewhat short-changed by a film that wants to be friendly to the adolescent demographic, and the film-makers vehemently aim to ‘go adult’ then the whole shift to adhere to that rating descends into an irrational focus on hitting it. Gone is a predominant focus on story, character, flowing dialogue and in comes F-bombs, crude humour and moments of bloody violence. When you become more concerned with pleasing a select few with a rampant desire to have their rating chubby appeased, than telling an interesting and coherent story, then you’ve got problems. Ultimately too, those who demanded an R rated Hellboy will then be left unsatisfied, because among those, they’ll no doubt miss the visual whimsy Del Torro provided or the easy, effortless charm Perlman lends to the titular character, aided by a script less occupied with loading him with vulgar language. Yes the character himself has historically been foul-mouthed and sardonic, but being edgy and R so often results in tired, groan-worthy dialogue. Other recent examples I can think of are a host of Netflix comedies (almost every bawdy netflix original comedy, Game Over Man for one), or Bad Grandpa or the relentlessly vulgar Arnold Schwarzenegger flop, Sabotage.
In many instances the tired R rating chaser will come with the ‘Red Band Trailer’ during marketing. Most instances of the Red Band tend to be tiresome or show too much. Occasionally they work, when, like the best era of the Judd Apatow comedy or Deadpool, there’s an impish charm. Crude for the sake of crude, relentless swearing with no real reasoning to the point it slows the film down, or a never-ending scattershot firing of dick jokes just becomes annoying. It often comes to a point in these films that everything grinds to a halt so characters can exchange unwitty witticisms. If a Red Band Trailer induces exhausted sighs more than laughs, it doesn’t bode well for the film itself.
I don’t particularly understand the fascination. I appreciate with Die Hard as an example, that the last two adventures of John McClane felt watered down and uncharacteristic, but the predominant issue with those was a lack of imagination in the scripts (especially the last one), not a lack of swearing. Even a dreadfully cobbled together R-rating cut of released on DVD just felt desperate. Poorly ADR’d swearing, woeful CGI blood additions, and all because a handful of fans felt McClane didn’t swear enough. The reality was, the film was just mediocre and lacking anywhere near the quality of the previous film, and galaxies away from the level set by the original.
Few aspects of film marketing rile me as much as the R rating fascination because when that becomes a significant talking point about the film, in the majority of cases, the film lacks anything else worth talking about. Writers, directors and studios should be more preoccupied with crafting an interesting and fresh story. If it happens to be R-rated, so be it, but when such key fundamentals of film-making and storytelling become afterthoughts, you’re setting yourself up for problems. Hellboy promises to fade away and on what is likely to be a drifting box office lul before Avengers: Endgame blitzes everything and ultimately, something that should have been left alone (there’s just not the size of demand for it, even in an age where comic book properties are knocking out home-runs all over the box office park).
I’ll at some point catch the remake (probably on streaming) as individually I’ve got a lot of time for Harbour, Milla Jovovich and Marshall, but something about this new Hellboy seems half-baked. As for a future Die Hard, the only clamour left for another film appears to be from a minority group all pining for an R-rated Die Hard. How about pining for a good one?
Does the rating of a film matter to you enough to persuade you to see it (or not)? Has a PG-13 rating ever annoyed you that much? Let us know in the comments below or tweet us @FlickeringMyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has three features due out on DVD/VOD in 2019 and a number of shorts hitting festivals. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/