Synopsis – Based on the graphic novels by Mike Mignola, Hellboy, caught between the worlds of the supernatural and human, battles an ancient sorceress bent on revenge.
My Take – While the Dark Horse Comics character, Hellboy, a creation of comic artist Mike Mignola, may not share the same amount of recognizability as his DC and Marvel counterparts in the eyes of the general public, the World Destroyer has found himself a sizable share in comic book history.
A factor which played into this importance would be the popularity of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro‘s live action adaptions of the character in the form of Hellboy (2004) and Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (2008). However, due to their contrastingly lower box office numbers, del Toro and his lead star Ron Perlman were not given an opportunity to conclude their originally proposed trilogy.
Now, eleven years later, the Right Hand of Doom is back on big screen, with actor David Harbour of Stranger Things fame, taking over the role from Perlman, in a film which purports to hew closer to the horror elements of the comics, taking inspiration from the arcs such as Darkness Calls, The Wild Hunt, and The Storm and the Fury. There is no denying that the earlier films were good creature features, as we all know Del Toro’s many gifts as a filmmaker include a meticulous visual sense, a knack for world-building and an emphasis on heart, but they also lacked the intensity, crudeness and violence that’s needed to make the character really work.
While this film is certainly more violent and gorier than del Toro’s take on the material, the final product in the process also seemed to have lost its depth, nuance and purpose. To make matters worse, there are enough superficial similarities with del Toro’s films to actively invite comparisons, none of which are exactly favorable.
Yes, by no means, is the film a disaster like the critics are calling it out, but with a director like Neil Marshall, best known for horror and action films like The Descent and Doomsday, not to mention orchestrating two major Game of Thrones battles, involved one would have expected better results.
Sure, there is enough fan service here that devotees will get a kick out of, and also manages to be wildly delirious and nonsense fun at same time, but it just crams in too much to be coherent for everyone else, especially the extreme amount of nauseating gore used here. While Harbour is magnetic as a lead, this latest superhero film certainly is not for everyone.
The story follows Anung Un Rama (David Harbour) aka Hellboy, an all red-hued skin, enormous pecs and hairy-backed demon with a tail and sliced double horns, who came to earth as the result of a Nazi experiment in World War II in order to turn the tide of the war, but ended up being adopted and raised by Trevor Bruttenholm (Ian McShane), as a force of good. Bruttenholm founded the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Development (BPRD), a secretive agency that protects earth from supernatural threats, and Hellboy, who was destined to bring about mankind’s destruction, fights to prevent it instead.
The latest threat comes in the form of Nimue, the Blood Queen (Milla Jovovich), a powerful 6th century witch who was defeated by King Arthur (Mark Stanley) and Merlin (Brian Gleeson) and dismembered by the Excalibur with her body parts buried separately across England. Now being resurrected with the help of Gruagach (Stephen Graham), a hog-like fairy beast, who has his own beef with Hellboy, Nimue wants to pick up right where she left off, which is to kill all humans through a deadly plague.
While he is being assisted by the clairvoyant Alice Monaghan (Sasha Lane) and Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim), a BPRD agent, who suppresses his own horrific supernatural abilities, Hellboy must defeat Nimue while making sure his own supposed destiny must never come true.
Here, director Neil Marshall brings a vision that is quite distinct in comparison to the world director del Toro had built and it is every bit as imaginative. He is a good match for the material, and his film amps up elements of both action and horror; starting with a woman being beheaded, followed by a wisecracking demon wrestling a luchador vampire bat, and of course there is also a pulp superhero who machine-guns his way through a cadre of Nazis.
The film truly embraces its R rating with some graphic scenes of violence as director Neil Marshall delights in trying to make everything as aesthetically ugly and stomach-churning as possible — he has no time for normal constitutions. That means every violent act is accompanied with gruesome details of innards and voice boxes and faces getting ripped off. And that camera is not panning away.
There are also some truly monstrous looking creatures here and despite being an action film there are also horror elements with scary and nightmarish moments, like a secret society that dons stag heads to hunt giants, and a thick British-accented pig monster who goes around pulling monks’ tongues out. Then there’s a scene where Hellboy beats up some angry giants while Muse thunders away on the soundtrack, or a house on giant chicken legs walks in so a Russian witch can strike a deadly bargain.
As typically happens when a film tries to do too much, though, it becomes a messy piece of work that doesn’t seem quite sure what it wants to be or who it’s for. While director Marshall seems to be aiming for a pulpy B-film quality which comes through sporadically, there’s very little here to really care about. Here, Andrew Crosby’s script attempts to cram half a dozen discrete stories into a single film, with poor pacing and jagged structure.
It’s essentially a mix of flashbacks, side adventures, and in-universe prophecy cobbled together as a film that isn’t downright bad, but also definitely isn’t very good. Much of the story is told in reams of exposition, and flashbacks that establish each new character feel like distracting detours. There’s little mystique or creepiness to the occult elements of the story, such that suspension of disbelief isn’t earned.
This seems like a film that was made with good intentions. It chose solid, twist-filled source material from the original comics as its story base; features some cool high-fantasy design; and it persistently tries to keep things feeling fun. Unfortunately, the film’s main issue, though, is it can’t balance its various tones. It’s trying to be irreverently funny and rock ‘n’ roll one minute and Shakespearean and grandiose the next. Case in point, while all of those elements are positives going in, the film on the whole is convoluted and choppy in its storytelling; ultimately lacks the full resources that it needs to execute its vision; and has so many swing-and-miss jokes that you eventually almost want to chuckle out of sympathy for the poor thing.
Another one of the film’s big missteps is in depicting the relationship between Hellboy and his adoptive father Bruttenholm. There is no tenderness or affection, only shouting and pointing fingers, such that it’s hard to believe Bruttenholm ever really loved Hellboy.
But clearly the film’s pride and joy is the look of David Harbour’s look, who does look legitimately incredible, as you never doubt its realism for a moment or see too much of the actor underneath. There is also some other great material from the comics brought to life in horrific-yet-wonderful fashion, such as the design of the monstrous and disgusting Baba Yaga (Troy James/Emma Tate). As great as those are, however, not everything is nearly as seamless, and there are clear spots that could have used additional resources or time.
While the budget of the film sits at just $50 million, it has all the earmarks of a blockbuster that has been altered late in post-production: hard edits, poor ADR and, most egregiously, second-rate CGI that has been layered on top of the practical effects.
However, David Harbour is quite excellent as the Big Red, he is the main reason the film manages to be entertaining. Playing the new Hellboy, Harbour’s performance also stacks up well against Perlman. A big part of Hellboy’s charm is that under his invulnerable hide he hides a vulnerable heart, and Harbour transmits melancholy and anger through the layers of red makeup. Wisecracking at times and wounded at others, this huge red demon is surprisingly soulful, sympathetic and even charming.
Ian McShane is cool and awesome as ever and even manages to sell the line “I love you, Hellboy”. Milla Jovovich clearly relishes playing a villain and chews the scenery at various points. Daniel Dae Kim and Sasha Lane play their supporting parts effectively, while Stephen Graham and Penelope Mitchell are effective. Thomas Haden Church as Lobster Johnson is excellent. On the whole, ‘Hellboy’ is a monstrously yet passable creature feature which overplays its gore and tone elements.
Directed – Neil Marshall
Rated – R
Run Time – 120 minutes