Neil Marshall’s fifth movie, Hellboy, is not so much a reboot of the franchise popularised by Guillermo Del Toro’s two movies, as it is a more faithful adaptation of Mike Mignola’s popular comic series.
Hellboy (David Harbour, Stranger Things), reluctant steward of Armageddon, plies his trade working for his father Professor Trevor Bruttenholm (aka Professor Broom, played by Ian McShane) at the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defence (B.P.R.D.), protecting the world from monstrous and ancient threats. While out on a routine mission to hunt some giants, the B.P.R.D. learn that ancient witch Nimue, a.k.a. The Blood Queen (Milla Jovovich), has risen from the grave, intent on bringing about a deadly plague to wipe out humanity bring forth the apocalypse, and give rise to ancient monsters of the Earth to reclaim it under her rule. Hellboy must team up with telekinetic Alice Monaghan (Sasha Lane) and the secretive Major Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim) to stop her.
By now it’s unlikely you will not be aware of the critical lambasting Hellboy has taken since release. It has copped flack from all sides and while some of the criticisms are valid (particularly in regard to the quality of the CGI), the fact of the matter is that it’s just not that bad. Mike Mignola’s stories have always been dark, and Neil Marshall’s movies have always been violent. Basing the film on a story that involves a nasty medieval plague and a lot of swordplay suits Marshall’s sensibilities down to the ground. So what we get is a dark, violent, very weird take on a dark, violent and very weird character. Yes, it has flaws, but not enough to mark it as the disaster it’s been heralded as.
Marshall’s movie sticks very closely to The Wild Hunt storyline, expertly penned in the comics by Mike Mignola and beautifully drawn by the great Duncan Fegredo. It also moderately borrows from the two stories that followed, The Storm and The Fury. But we are introduced to Hellboy with a very accurate pre-credits recreation of Mignola and Richard Corben’s Hellboy in Mexico, or a Drunken Blur storyline, which sees Hellboy go up against Mexican bat god Camazotz, gearing up for a scrap as a masked luchador in a wrestling ring. It’s a lot of fun, and perfect way to introduce the uninitiated to the Hellboy experience.
While Guillermo Del Toro’s movies were both well received and very good fun, it’s probably fair to say their popularity is more to do with Del Toro fans taking them to their hearts and appreciating his take on the source material than anything else. As enjoyable as Hellboy II: The Golden Army is, it moved much further away from the source material than the original movie and was solidly Del Toro’s Hellboy rather than Mignola’s. What did appease fans of both the comic and the movies was Ron Perlman’s portrayal of Hellboy. He absolutely nailed it. So Marshall’s new movie finds itself in a bit of a pros and cons situation. It gets the story spot on, but doesn’t quite get Hellboy right.
David Harbour really isn’t given enough to let him escape the mark Perlman left on the role. The odd make-up job doesn’t do him any favours, but he does his best with a script that makes Hellboy a curmudgeon rather than an average Joe. Ian McShane is basically Ian McShane, in that he’s very watchable as always, but he feels more like an extension of Winston from the John Wick films than the serious and academic Professor Bruttenholm. Milla Jovovich, however, is good as Nimue, The Blood Queen, playing the character with an understated menace that provides believable appeal to our conflicted protagonist.
Positioning the film as a superhero caper is another blunder. It’s anybody’s guess as to whether idle laziness or greedy marketing was the driving force, but no doubt the producers hoped to cash in on the superhero genre that’s proved so lucrative even for critical failures. But Hellboy is not, and never has been, a superhero. So if you bill him as such, people are bound to be disappointed.
Hellboy stories are actually dark detective pieces steeped in ancient folklore, WWII adventure and HP Lovecraft worship. His adventures can be simply broken down into two types of stories: the ones that lead the reader toward the unravelling of Hellboy’s dual nature as the reluctant harbinger of the apocalypse – a character constantly at odds with, and fighting against his destiny; and the ones where Hellboy punches the crap out of a variety of monsters. Both are great for completely opposing reasons.
Hellboy’s main story arc is long and intricate and took Mignola years to reveal in the pages of his books. Those years were peppered with one-shots and guest artists, and spinoffs such B.P.R.D., Lobster Johnson and Abe Sapien, all helping to flesh out Hellboy’s character and personality as an ordinary bloke just doing his job. Even though that job happens to be saving people from bizarre and ever more terrifying ghosts and monsters, it was always quite mundane to Hellboy. He might get knocked on his ass on more than one occasion, but nothing ever phases him. Hellboy treats the paranormal as normal and the spectacular as a chore to be dealt with. He’s a working stiff, except instead of fixing the plumbing or the electrics, he’s fixing the spectral and the bizarre. Combined with a sense of humour as dry as kindling, it’s easy to see why Hellboy’s popularity has endured on the page.
Unfortunately for the movie, it sails quite wide of the mark of this crucial element. Hellboy is simply too angry. He’s in conflict with almost everybody, from Professor Bruttenholm to Captain Daimio to The Blood Queen. Everybody gets attitude, when he should be much more laid back, and it does feel like the script simply does not ‘get’ the sense of humour of the books. Which is a shame, because you feel that if they’d just nailed the humour correctly, a lot else would be forgiven.
Likewise, the appearance of famed Nazi hunter and Mignola-verse favourite Lobster Johnson (Thomas Haden Church) might be very welcome from the perspective of paying fan service, but it doesn’t quite work against the darkness of the rest of the film. The Lobster is too cartoonish, so if you are coming to Hellboy with no prior reading he is an utterly bizarre presence, with little to no relevance to his appearance in this story.
There is also some pretty bad-looking CGI at work here. The effects where Alice communes with the dead are very poorly rendered. But even then, in terms of the design, it’s clear the filmmakers are lifting the aesthetic from the depictions of séances in the books and the way in which the character of Johann Kraus (whose abilities appear to be amalgamated into the character of Alice for this film) interacts with the deceased. It does serve as a timely reminder that things that work on the page don’t always translate to the screen so well.
But with that out of the way, there’s a fair bit that Hellboy does get right. For starters, the dark and violent aspects of the comics play right to Neil Marshall’s strengths. For those familiar with the low-budget splatter of Dog Soldiers, the claustrophobic bleakness of The Descent or the gonzo Escape From New York / Mad Max mash up that made Doomsday an utter riot, the blood and guts on display here can come as no surprise. And he lets them throttle out in Hellboy, with lots of pustulated plague faces looking like Doomsday leftovers, monsters having their skulls cleaved in two and the general public getting skinned and pulped by towering interdimensional beasts attacking Old London Town.
Hellboy’s origin scene is also very comic accurate, with a lovely attention to detail that could only come from fans of the material, right down to the sigil on Rasputin’s cloak and the Nazi with 3D glasses. It’s a cool sequence, and there’s further fun to be had as the B.P.R.D. run down a bunch of evildoers late on to the tune of Mötley Crüe’s banging “Kickstart My Heart.” The gruesome Baba Yaga is also another aspect of Hellboy lore the film gets absolutely spot-on, and his New Forest scrap against a trio of hungry giants is very enjoyable.
Hellboy is very much a mixed bag. While the complaints are certainly valid – poor effects, too much exposition, too much crammed in to the run time – they’re really not bad enough to justify the absolute whipping this movie has received. Put it this way: If you think Hellboy is worst movie you’ve ever seen, you haven’t watched enough movies. It’s undoubtedly flawed, but it is also very respectful of its source material as a dark and gruesome horror story. In time perhaps, like Marshall’s underrated Doomsday, audiences may look back more kindly on Hellboy. For now, consider that it’s really quite decent – particularly if you are a fan.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★☆☆
‘Hellboy’ opened in Australian cinemas on April 11 and US cinemas on April 12.