I’m not opposed to a Hellboy reboot. The last two Hellboy movies we got from Guillermo del Toro happened over a decade ago, after all. I’ve come to accept that a third part from the director is a pipe dream, and that it’s okay for someone else to give it a stab, saw or slice.
That someone else turned out to be director Neil Marshall of The Descent fame. His latest incarnation of Hellboy had seem promising. Casting the always-likeable David Harbour (Jim Hopper from Stranger Things) as the agitated anti-hero feels like a right step. The fact that it’s going the R-rated route means it can push the envelopes that del Toro’s PG-13 ones couldn’t.
Well, my fault for believing in fairies.
Hellboy’s lost. Really lost. In mediocrity
The inherent problem with Hellboy (2019) isn’t because of how it deviates from del Toro’s style and sensibilities, but because of how it fails to work on its own. It’s clear that the director is gunning for a Hellboy that can revel in the audacity and over-the-topness of a heavy metal album cover. Not a bad idea at all. But you can’t shout and shred guitar thinking that’s how heavy metal works. Even loud music needs harmony, which is what Hellboy sorely lacks.
The movie starts with a flashback, but not Hellboy’s. Centuries ago, the blood queen Nimue (Milla Jovovich) is slain by King Arthur and Merlin. Being immortal, her body is divided up and placed in storage across multiple locations. In present day, Hellboy – working, of course, with the Bureau of Paranormal Research & Defence and his tough-love father Professor Broom (Ian McShane) – is sent to the UK to deal with some magical threats.
It’s not long before he is whisked into a quest to stop all of Nimue’s pieces from being assembled, aided by young and snarky clairvoyant Alice (Sasha Lane) and uptight British military operative Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim). There are monsters to fight, particularly a giant talking boar-man played by Stephen Graham. In the meantime, Hellboy needs to fight himself, too – he is a monster, after all, prophesised to end the world. Nature versus nurture and all that.
Where’s everyone? I don’t know, Nimue, I don’t think anyone wants to stick around for this
It could’ve worked, perhaps, if the movie had done a better job endearing you to the characters. It’s hard to care for this new Hellboy when you barely see any consequences of him being a monster. Most times people seem to ignore him in public. He neither expresses love for his job, nor for humans. He berates his father for turning him into a “weapon” against other demons and ghouls, but has no hesitance shooting them in the face. What does he want? What does he need? A better movie that won’t waste David Harbour, maybe.
His companions Alice and Daimio are no better. They butt heads and spout the occasional zinger, but character development for them were mostly relegated to flashbacks that grind the movie to a halt, and they don’t emerge more complex or likeable after. Their character arcs fizzle pathetically like an ember dropped in a puddle. I probably shouldn’t mention the characters that came and went for no discernible reason.
They have just as much dimensions as this photo
Watching this 2019 reboot, it’s hard not to miss del Toro’s treatment in his 2004 and 2008 movies. His brilliant production design and sense of whimsy aside, del Toro’s Hellboy worked because he crafted good characters first. Recall the scene in the first Hellboy movie where the hero has to brawl a monster in a subway while having to care for a crate of kittens, or that wonderfully cheesy moment in Part Two involving heartbreak, beer and Barry Manilow. These are scenes that humanise literal monsters, so that you root for them even when the world doesn’t.
But in Marshall’s Hellboy, gone are the endearing characters. Gone is the mix of wonder with terror, not to mention the world building and attention to detail. Farewell, beautifully-realised sets and settings. In its stead is something louder, edgier and gorier, but that’s like saying a bled-out husk of a human makes them a more wholesome person.
Okay, in rare occassions, some brilliance shines through. The scene midway through the film in which Hellboy confronts Baba Yaga is genuinely horrifying and darkly comedic, almost reminiscent of Army of Darkness. The setting, a chicken-legged hut, is inventive. Its use of practical makeup and a skillful contortionist ups the horror. But the movie manages to waste such a compelling villain; Baba Yaga’s role in the story is as disjointed as her limbs. The whole scene feels like one of those bonus, unnecessary video game level – a great idea but makes little difference to the coherent whole.
There’s a way to enjoy Hellboy, and that’s to put your brain close to comatose and treat it like a B-flick with a budget. I won’t deny the cathartic fun of watching gory dismemberments and a hearty amount of eye-related violence set to Alice Cooper and Motley Crue, even if the action is choppily edited. Maybe some of those groan-inducing lines could raise some chuckles, if looked from another perspective.
It’s just not the Hellboy for me.
Also published on Medium.