While Guillermo Del Toro’s two Hellboy movies (the first of which was shot in Prague) were crafted with the director’s trademark care and eye for Gothic elegance, that’s all out the window in this reboot: flippant, gory, and haphazardly assembled, 2019’s Hellboy is an unabashedly campy monster mash that’s fun for a while but treads a well-worn narrative structure as it lurches towards a familiar climax.
Hellboy marks the first feature in nearly a decade for director Neil Marshall, who made a splash with the horror films Dog Soldiers and The Descent; his underrated genre features Doomsday and Centurion were less warmly received. Since then, however, he’s honed his craft on TV, where he’s been responsible for a pair of Game of Thrones’ most memorable battle scenes.
Marshall is a good match for the material, and his Hellboy amps up elements of both action and horror; gore effects are so over-the-top they almost reach comedic levels, while fight scenes – including an extended troll fight assembled as if it were one long take – are well-choreographed if overly-reliant on post-production editing and effects.
David Harbour’s Hellboy is a darker, more glib take on the character, but while the makeup effects are great they also result in a less-expressive portrayal than Ron Perlman last time around.
The film’s human characters, however, don’t bat an eye at the sight of this hulking hellspawn; as the movie opens, Hellboy takes on a lucha libre wrestler in front of fans who don’t mind the appearance of the demon, but burst into a panic when his opponent turns into a man-bat. Something isn’t quite right: that man-bat was Esteban Ruiz, Hellboy’s friend and a BPRD (Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense) agent he was trying to bring back into the fold.
Esteban’s death, the film tells us, has something to do with Nimue (Milla Jovovich), a 6th-century witch, and ruler of demonic monsters, who was cut up into pieces by no less than King Arthur and scattered around the world.
1500 years later, one of those monsters – a boar-fairy voiced by Stephen Graham – is now trying to put those pieces back together so Nimue can rule the Earth and exact revenge upon mankind. And it’s up to Harbour’s Hellboy to stop them and prevent the end of the world.
Backing up Hellboy in his fight against Nimue are his father and BPRD head Professor Broom (Ian McShane), a talented medium named Alice (Sasha Lane) that Hellboy once saved as a child, and UK BPRD agent Major Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim), who seems to be harboring a secret agenda.
It all leads down a distressingly familiar path, with one or two flashbacks and scenes of exposition too many; while Hellboy is essentially caught between the worlds of man and monsters, there’s no surprise in which side he ultimately takes.
Still, the violence and effects – and at least some of the glib one-liners – help maintain interest. We’ve become used to movies that climax with a portal to Hell being opened and the fate of humanity put at stake, but here’s one that features London pedestrians having the flesh ripped off their faces, being pulled in two, and impaled on the legs of giant creatures as blood splatters onto the camera.
But best of all here are the grotesque practical effects that dot most of Hellboy’s landscape: unlike Del Toro’s refined creations, the monsters here are dripping, drooling, terrifying mounds of flesh. Best of all: a one-eyed spider-walking Baba Yaga who plants a disgusting kiss across Hellboy’s lips.
Still, 2019’s Hellboy has all the earmarks of a feature that has been altered late in post-production: hard edits, poor ADR (Harbour’s Hellboy even seems to be voiced by a different actor for a line or two) and, most egregiously, second-rate CGI that has been layered on top of the practical effects.
Yes, like the derided 2011 remake of The Thing, the filmmakers have gone to great lengths to create practical creatures only to have poorly-realized CGI effects imposed on top of them. Stephen Graham’s boar-fairy looks great under the neck and from behind, but suddenly becomes a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon whenever he opens his mouth.
While 2019’s Hellboy is often a sufficient take on the Mignola comic (and perhaps even more faithful to the source), it will quickly dawn upon most audiences that this is a second-class product next to the earlier films. While Del Toro’s long-awaited third Hellboy feature never materialized, this iteration is unlikely to make it to two movies.