Mike Mignola’s Hellboy is my guy, my favourite comic book character of all time. I’m a fan. I loved that the Guillermo del Toro films hit the key beats of the mythology but remained first and foremost del Toro films. Neil Marshall’s new HELLBOY goes back to the comics for its imagery, but doesn’t seem entirely clear what it wants to achieve beyond that.
Summoned from hell and put to work defending humanity from paranormal threats, Hellboy (David Harbour) is tasked with stopping the immortal witch Nimue (Milla Jovovich) from bringing about the end of the world.
I really enjoyed the first half of this film. It’s a giddily fun tour of Hellboy’s greatest hits. If you’re a fan prone to squealing with delight at the sudden appearance of Lobster Johnson or the Baba Yaga, you’ll have a good time. If you know these stories, Hellboy’s history with certain key characters he encounters, this is for you. If you’re not then you’re more likely to be bewildered and frustrated because none of this will be explained. In a medium of moving images this could have been solved in any number of show-don’t-tell ways, through effective world-building, but it wasn’t.
Some of the images are straight off Mignola’s pages – the hog-headed fairy thug Gruagach lugging around chests bound in iron, the Baba Yaga’s chicken-leg house appearing out of the mist. Speaking of the Russian folkloric über-witch (brought to grotesque life by contortionist Troy James), her encounter with Hellboy is the funny-macabre highlight of the movie by quite a margin. Other sights I’ve never seen before, like the quite disturbing idea of a psychic medium bringing recently departed spirits back by regurgitating them and using her own body and innards as a fleshy anchor to the world of the living.
The film’s second half is weird, and not in a good way. Narratively speaking, it dives off a cliff. It’s like we’re watching events on fast-forward, or in planning the film’s structure they had all the events that needed to happen on carefully ordered cards then they just set them on fire. The supernatural destruction of London also gave me unfortunate MUMMY flashbacks. I’m sure at one point Hellboy and Professor Broom (Ian McShane) have the same conversation twice in two different locations. When the main plot finally kicks in over halfway through it just staggers and lurches through the motions, then it ends, just stops dead. The stupidest plot turns – the ones where you actually feel your brain trying to escape for refuge – are straight out of the comic, and I’m not defending them there either.
Harbour makes a good Hellboy; he’s uglier and hairier than Ron Perlman’s portrayal, also more impulsive, belligerent and prone to teenage hormonal mood swings. Everyone else is terrible, whether you’re an American doing a “cor blimey” accent (Sasha Lane), you seemingly received no helpful direction (Jovovoch) or you couldn’t quite disguise that you just don’t care (McShane). Actually no, Thomas Haden Church is good in his cameo as supernatural Nazi-hunter Lobster Johnson, but that’s because he’s supposed to be over-acting.
There is no human side to this movie; it’s all demon. None of these characters relate to each other beyond sniping and cruel put-downs; nobody seems to do anything for any other reason beyond reluctant obligation. The Hellboy comics are violent, but the art style doesn’t make a big thing of it. In live-action there’s only so many fountains of viscera you can see before you processing faculties go into shutdown. Hellboy swears, but usually in moments where it would have an impact, not every other word just because Deadpool did it. They really could have done with picking a tone too, portentous or irreverent, but this inconsistency just smacks of late-in-the-game tomfoolery in the edit.
Hellboy is far from a success, but it’s not a complete disaster either. Neil Marshall and his design teams get the look so right with a faithful recreation of some of the most memorable images from the comics, and David Harbour’s different take on HB makes it worth a watch for fans. But the shoddy story construction, scattershot tone and lack of any emotional grounding whatsoever makes this a frustrating watch for any viewer, and borderline unbearable for anyone without familiarity with the source material. SSP