Director: Neil Marshall
Writer: Andrew Cosby
Producer: Lawrence Gordon, Lloyd Levin, Mike Richardson, Philip Westgren, Carl Hampe, Matt O’Toole, Les Weldon, Yariv Lerner
Stars: David Harbour, Milla Jovovich, Ian McShane, Sasha Lane, Stephen Graham, Daniel Dae Kim, Thomas Haden Church
Aided by his adoptive father, a psychic medium, and a shapeshifting special agent, Hellboy battles an ancient witch descended from a war with King Arthur.
“Hellboy” 2019 never stood a chance. Before production began, pockets of fandom decried the project as an inferior imposter when it was little more than a mere announcement. They had already decided the soft reboot was a sacrilegious affront to Guillermo del Toro, who had long lobbied very vocally to complete his cinematic trilogy begun in 2004 with Ron Perlman in the title role. Studio suits didn’t share that side’s passion for del Toro’s return, opting for a different path that displeased the director’s disciples. For them, “Hellboy” 2019 would suck no matter what, even if they had to manipulate after-the-fact opinions to fit a desired narrative of negativity.
Brouhaha harangued “Hellboy” on its backend too. With trade papers looking for sparks to explain the fire of underwhelming box office returns, insiders told tales out of school about discontent on set. Director Neil Marshall reportedly clashed creatively with producers Lawrence Gordon and Lloyd Levin over significant decisions such as firing cinematographer Sam McCurdy all the way down to dismissible dust-ups over the design of a tree. Critically and commercially, “Hellboy” was a bona fide bomb, and stakeholders seemed to be passing blame via rumors to wash their hands of responsibility.
What of the movie that exists in between those bothersome bookends? It’s too bad hardheads don’t give it a fair shake and creators appear quick to downplay it as disappointing. Divorced from behind-the-scenes baggage, “Hellboy” stands independently as an eye candy epic of frightening fantasy enthusiastically embracing pure comic book carnage.
Heading off the first vulnerability at the pass, smart casting preemptively takes the wind out of “what about?” complaints by giving David Harbour the Right Hand of Doom. Harbour isn’t quite on the same level of fan favoritism as Ron Perlman yet. But his breakout role as Hopper on “Stranger Things” puts him in the same category of lovable gruffness as his predecessor. It’s impossible to write off David Harbour out of hand precisely because of what his appealing personality brings to the role.
Ditto Ian McShane. John Hurt’s shoes aren’t any easier to fill. Yet “Deadwood’s” Al Swearengen uses his signature hard-assed edge to cut a sharper take on Hellboy’s dad than Hurt’s kinder interpretation had. Having two no-nonsense men charging the positive and negative nodes of “Hellboy’s” battery sends a signal from the start that the movie intends to take no prisoners in its uncompromising approach to R-rated action.
Thankfully for those of us who’ve been around Hellboy’s block before, this restart doesn’t rehash Big Red’s history any more than necessary for this specific story. Hellboy’s origin as a Nazi-summoned hellspawn receives only quick flashbacks to put a wedge between Hellboy and Broom while setting up his connection to immortal witch Nimue, the plot’s Big Bad.
The movie isn’t as merciful when it comes to establishing everyone else. Hellboy’s background may not receive detailed treatment, but all three acts still choke on exhausting amounts of information. People include King Arthur, Merlin, two different occult societies, two different psychic mediums, a special agent who transforms into a jaguar, a fairy familiar who transforms into a boar, and witches with varying degrees of deformities. Places include Tijuana, Colorado, England, Scotland, Siberia, and two ethereal underworlds. There is a lot to retain in your brain and that list only scratches the skin.
At least “Hellboy” generally coughs up its nearly nonstop exposition quickly. The movie rarely feels the drag of its two-hour runtime, breezing through setup scenes with breathless narration so it can keep copious creatures on a conveyor belt of almost constant hacking and slashing.
Once exposition jumps out of the way, an eye for eerie extravagance persistently populates the screen with a wild menagerie of monsters. Particularly during its finale, “Hellboy” turns into a pretty spectacular horror show loaded with zombies, giants, fire dragons, hairy winged vampires, and big beasts I’m not sure there are names for. I was going to describe the movie as a series of “violent vignettes” until I saw The Associated Press said it first. The difference is they used the term as a derogatory criticism whereas I think it succinctly sums up “Hellboy’s” strength as a straight shot of bloody battling focused on the fun side of cinematic spectacle.
For diehards to whom this matters, I saw the previous two Hellboy movies in their respective release years and have read only a handful of Mike Mignola’s comics. My investment in the IP is minimal and my memories of Hellboy’s other incarnations are not remotely fresh. This leaves me able to sit back, relax, and enjoy “Hellboy” without any burdens of unfair expectations or prejudicial preconceptions.
I guess anyone can hate “Hellboy” for what it isn’t. It’s not Guillermo del Toro’s vision. If scuttlebutt can be believed, it may not even be Neil Marshall’s vision, or Mike Mignola’s for that matter. Maybe it uses too much CGI and not enough practical effects. Maybe it’s not an especially rich story based on a faithful adaptation either. Frankly, what it “isn’t” doesn’t concern me.
I’d rather appreciate “Hellboy” for what it is. It’s a slaughter-soaked slice of monster mania made to dazzle entranced eyes while inducing wicked snickers. There’s hollowness to that fact that understandably won’t appease everyone’s preferences. Simply set aside sulking over what might have been in an alternate timeline however, and there’s an amazing amount of enjoyment to be had with a bag of Skittles in one hand and a favorite beverage in the other.
NOTE: There is a mid-credits scene and a post-credits scene.
Review Score: 75