A film review by Craig J. Koban April 25, 2019

HELLBOY (2019) j

2019, R, 120 mins.


David Harbour as Hellboy  /  Milla Jovovich as Nimue the Blood Queen  /  Ian McShane as Prof. Trevor Bruttenholm  /  Daniel Dae Kim as Major Ben Daimio  /  Sasha Lane as Alice Monaghan  /  Penelope Mitchell as Ganeida  /  Brian Gleeson as Merlin  /  Sophie Okonedo as Lady Hatton  /  Thomas Haden Church as Lobster Johnson

Directed by Neil Marshall  /  Written by Andrew Cosby





Back in 2004 writer/director Guillermo del Toro introduced movie audiences to the bizarre comic book universe of HELLBOY, which in turn was born in comic book form thanks to Mike Mignola.  

I enjoyed that film as a preposterously imaginative fantasy that was unafraid to go against the grain of obligatory genre fare of the era.  That, and del Toro painted the screen with luscious art direction and then cutting edge visual effects, which was all complimented by an inspired performance in the titular role by the incomparable Ron Perlman.  The inevitable 2009 sequel carried on the first film's marriage of dark comedy and supernatural monster intrigue, but worked less successfully overall.  Despite my issues with both films, though, del Toro's HELLBOY series was an audacious original all on its own wacky terms. 

This all builds up, unfortunately, to the new HELLBOY film, which is not a sequel to finish off del Toro's trilogy, but rather - sigh - a reboot of those films, with a complete overhaul of the narrative, actors, and crew behind the camera.  Rather inexplicably, HELLBOY III was supposed to happen with del Toro and Perlman in tow, but never materialized when the filmmaker was not offered the job of bringing his trilogy to final fruition (and considering that he became a recent Oscar winner for THE SHAPE OF WATER, it makes it all the more head shakingly inexplicable).  Rather predictably and mournfully, the resulting del Toro and Perlman free HELLBOY reboot emerges as truly and obnoxiously crude, loud, and uninspired, which is made all the more shameful because it genuinely lacks the imaginative flair and visual inspiration that the previous entries brought to the table.   



One big and not quite so welcoming difference this go around is this new film's predilection towards being an ultra hard R rated effort (del Toro pushed the edginess as far as he could for a PG-13 rating).  This is apparent within the first few minutes of HELLBOY redux, which opens in the Dark Ages of 517 A.D. and shows a large bird gorging on and sucking up the eye balls of a dead corpse (yuck).  We then meet the film's newest villain in the Blood Witch Nimue (Milla Jovovich, with a questionably on again, off again accent), who has a chance meeting with King Arthur (yes, that one), who beheads her with Excalibur, chops her up into several pieces and places them in multiple sealed crates, and then ships them off to various segregated placed across England.  I guess if you want to ensure a world destroying witch's death...this is the way to do it. 

We then cut to the present day as we are introduced to Hellboy (played admirably in the film's only creative highlight by David Harbour) who's tasked by his employers at the FBI's Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense to stop any attempts by nefarious foes to locate Nimue's body parts, reassemble them, and bring about her wraith and the apocalypse.  He's supported by his foster dad in Trevor (Ian McShane), but unfortunately for "Big Red" he's doubled crossed and left nearly for dead, until, of course, he's rescued by a medium named Alice (Sasha Lane) and Ben (Daniel Day Kim), the latter who has, shall we say, a very strong affinity with cats.  This trio takes it upon themselves to track down the monsters behind bringing Nimue back to life, but when she's successfully reassembled Hellboy and company fully begin to realize the severity of their mission. 

Let's start with some positives.  David Harbour is a fly-in-under-the-radar actor I've admired for some time (his work on Netflix's STRANGER THINGS has, no doubt, allowed for him to generate some mainstream success that led to him getting silver screen gigs).  Perlman is, to be fair, pretty irreplaceable as Hellboy, but Harbour manages to infuse his own brand of clumsy charm and brooding intensity in the character, which is a welcome relief.  He's not outright trying to mimic what Perlman did a decade ago, but instead tries to make this outlandishly macabre character uniquely his own...at least as much as he can, seeing as he's caked under pounds of makeup that's similar to what his predecessor, no doubt, had to endure.  Even when the screenplay utterly fails Harbour and gives him some awfully cringe worthy one liners (a final one near the end as he tosses a head into hell's fires comes to mind), he imbues his role with such a brutish and knuckleheaded charisma that he makes cookie cutter dialogue work. 

Alas, the screenplay of HELLBOY is kind of a nightmarish mess.  This is not really an origin film, which is odd, and it especially requires one to be familiar with Hellboy mythology going in (virginal viewers to both the comic books and past films may be confused as the story here progresses).  There's something good to be said about planting viewers right in the middle of the action and never looking back, but HELLBOY has an awful lot of convoluted exposition to wade through, not only with its red skinned anti-hero, but with his father, the bureau he works for, his new companions, and Minue's centuries long quest to achieve ultimate comeuppance on mankind.  There's also many, many flashbacks and flashforwards added to the barrage of characters thrown at us, almost to the point of requiring some sort of road map to make sense of it all.  Plot structure is indeed a massive problem here, which is not assisted by various characters throughout explaining everyone and everything throughout. 

The film's R rated material is also problematic, not because I'm a prude at all (I usually loathe it when films that should have been R-rated receive a neutered PG-13 rating).  No, what's so distracting about HELLBOY is just how aggressive it is when it comes to characters being potty mouthed and unleashing frenetic and endless gore on screen.  Yes, Hellboy's comic book world is indeed not a warm and inviting one and it certainly seems fitting to give its film adaptation some edge, but the writers of HELLBOY confuse an unrelenting onslaught of naughty F-bomb riddled language and extreme blood spewing as being cutting edge.  This makes the film more exhausting and numbing than entertaining.  The middling to atrocious CGI on display here as well does the film no favors in this regard either, and the oftentimes laughable results can't seem to keep up with the film's insistence to unleash massive carnage. 

The direction by Neil Marshall (a good filmmaker behind THE DESCENT and the very underrated CENTURION) is a mixed bagged, mostly because he hyperactively peppers his HELLBOY with all out chaos instead of the sophisticated and invitingly strange visual aesthetic that made del Toro's films so beguiling and rich to look at.  The new HELLBOY comes off more as a ghastly rock video extended to two hours, which features multiple scenes of grim action awkwardly and haphazardly edited together with tiresomely shoehorned in heavy metal tunes senselessly blaring on the soundtrack.  Combined with the aforementioned computer generated monster mashing and rampantly phony looking mayhem and what we're essentially left with her is a HELLBOY film that's a far cry from the bravura sense of meticulously rendered world building of del Toro's iterations.  Everything here just seems...thrown up on screen. 

Marshall makes a couple of scenes work, like an early standout moment involving Hellboy battling it out versus multiple and vastly larger giants that displays some legitimate creativity (regrettably, there are no scenes later that can top it, leaving the film feeling like it climaxes early).  I've read that this HELLBOY had a rather dreadful production history spawned out of creative differences, which painfully shows in the final product.  I guess this builds to me asking a simple question in closing: Why bother rebooting this series that had an established cult audience and a more than capable director in charge the first go around and replace it with something that's feels like a hatchet job of too many cooks being in the same kitchen?  The extreme performance goodwill of David Harbour aside (who's the only thing that makes the film engagingly tolerable), the new retooled HELLBOY is a squandered and missed opportunity to pointlessly inject new life in a franchise that probably didn't need the injection in the first place.  Equal parts soulless, desperate, and clumsy, this reboot is - pardon the pun - a piece of hellishly hot garbage.

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