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Feature Article

Hellboy (2019) Review: A Demonic Disappointment

Hell no.

Mike Mignola's Hellboy is one of the great comic book creations of the 1990s, and like all the best heroes, he's a fascinating, unique character with a great backstory. He's a wise-cracking demonic paranormal investigator who must fight his own inner conflicts and contradictions, and reconcile his demonic origins while fighting monsters alongside his human colleagues. It was this complex personality that drew Guillermo Del Toro to the material, and he produced and directed the movies Hellboy (2004) and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008), both starring Ron Perlman in the title role. While neither movie was a huge box office hit, they were warmly received by critics and fans.

Sadly, after many years trying to get Hellboy 3 off the ground, in early 2017 Del Toro confirmed that it wasn't going to happen. Instead we have this complete franchise reboot. Stranger Things star David Harbour has now taken on the lead role, while directorial reigns have been handed to Neil Marshall, best known for his work on shows such as Game of Thrones and Lost in Space, as well as movies like The Descent and Doomsday.

Much has been made of the fact that this latest Hellboy movie taps into the horror-influenced side of Mignola's comic books, taking the material in a darker direction than Del Toro's more family-friendly action/fantasy films. On the face of it, this is a smart move. Del Toro is one of modern fantasy cinema's greatest filmmakers, and any attempt to match his genre-blending ambition and visual invention would almost certainly be doomed to failure. But if you're going to strip away these elements, then you better have something compelling to replace them, and this is where Marshall's movie comes up woefully short.

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As in the comics, Hellboy is an employee of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD), a covert organisation dedicated to fighting monsters and stopping paranormal threats. A seemingly routine job in Mexico to extract a fellow agent goes wrong, and a distraught Hellboy is pulled back to BPRD headquarters. He is dispatched on a new mission by his adoptive father and BPRD boss Professor Broom (Ian McShane), on a mission that sends him to England to help stop some fearsome giants who are tearing up the countryside. But things don't go according to plan there either, and soon Hellboy is teamed up with surly military agent Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim) and psychic pal Alice (Sasha Lane) to stop the return of Nimue, the Blood Queen (Milla Jovovich), an ancient demoness who was thwarted in the Middle Ages but is back to claim Hellboy as her king and wreak her vengeance on the land.

There's a lot going on here. Writer Andrew Cosby took inspiration from three of Mignola's limited series (Darkness Calls, The Wild Hunt, and The Storm and the Fury), and the result is that nothing ever feels like it's part of a single consistent story. Throughout the movie, characters and subplots are introduced then quickly forgotten, and there is an over-reliance on exposition and flashbacks to plug the narrative gaps. It's understandable that Marshall might want to incorporate as many elements from the source material as possible, but when some familiar roles (Kroenen, Lobster Johnson) are basically reduced to cameos, you wonder what the point was if it's going to interfere with the narrative flow.

The movie's problems sadly don't stop there. A talented cast do their best, but the clunky dialogue and hamfisted attempts at humor result in some surprisingly weak performances. Lost star Kim struggles with an underwritten role as Daimio, a gruff agent with a dark secret, while Lane is mostly given a bunch of one-liners that fall flat. There is an attempt to give Nimue more depth than might be expected for this sort of villainous role, but Jovovich doesn't get enough screen time to really develop her character. Worst of all is Gruagach, Nimue's huge, hulking, pig-faced assistant, rendered in CG and voiced by Stephen Graham (most noted for his work on HBO's Boardwalk Empire). Graham can be a powerful and intense actor, but here he's reduced to playing a deeply annoying, pointlessly foul-mouthed monster who pretty much ruins every scene he's in.

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As for Harbour, there are occasional scenes where we see the power that he could've brought to this role, as Hellboy is seduced by Nimue, leading him to question why is fighting alongside the humans against "his kind." These are the elements that make Hellboy such a fascinating character, and Marshall deserves credit for attempting to weave the character's backstory into the main narrative, rather than give us just another origin movie. But while Harbour does get to flex his dramatic muscles a couple of times, it's at the expense of the other elements--the humor, the compassion, the camaraderie--that Perlman brought so vividly to his version of the character.

There's no denying that Hellboy fully grabs the opportunity provided by its R-rating. This is a gory movie--heads, limbs, and guts are thrown around with wild abandon, especially toward the end as demons descend on London. But the high level of bloodshed doesn't really add anything. The movie might be packed with monsters, but it's never scary, and the over-reliance on digital blood quickly becomes tiresome. There are a few impressive physical effects--Hellboy himself looks great, and the most effectively spooky sequence comes when he confronts the half-blind disfigured witch Baba Yaga. But the CG for the monsters and action scenes elsewhere frequently falls short of the standards expected from modern blockbusters, giving the movie a disappointingly cheap look.

It's perhaps unfair to constantly compare Marshall's film to Del Toro's Hellboy movies. However, it's hard not to when this Hellboy gets things so wrong. The movie's ending--plus a mid-credits sequence--clearly set up a sequel, so if it happens, perhaps the filmmakers will get a chance to correct the mistakes here. Harbour remains a great choice to play the character, and it will be a shame if this is the last time we see him in the role. But ultimately this is not the Hellboy movie fans wanted to see him in.

The GoodThe Bad
Harbour is well cast, and gets some
impressive dramatic scenes
Story is a mess
Makes full use of its R-ratingHumor falls flat
Characters underdeveloped
Digital effects frequently poor
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mondodan

Dan Auty

Firmly of the opinion that there is no film that isn't improved by the addition of an exploding head or kung-fu zombie.
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