Review: Neil Marshall’s ‘Hellboy’ (2019)

Hellboy with a gun one-sheet poster

Hellboy | Neil Marshall | April 12, 2019

When it comes to franchise reboots, there will always be comparisons. As much as some may want to think, films – especially comic book-based ones – don’t exist in a vacuum. You see it with all the Spider-Man reboots (Tobey Maguire to Andrew Garfield to Tom Holland), the Hulk recasting (Eric Bana to Ed Norton to Mark Ruffalo), all the Batman and Superman films, and now with Hellboy.

Based (again) on the Mike Mignola graphic novels, this Lionsgate reboot from fantasy-horror director Neil Marshall (The Descent, select Game of Thrones episodes) retains a few now-familiar plot elements while telling a different Hellboy story that hews a little closer to the original Mignola stories – specifically “The Wild Hunt”. Hellboy (Stranger Things‘ David Harbour), summoned from Hell as a baby human-demon by the Nazis to bring about the end of the world and adopted by Professor Trevor Bruttenholm/Broom (Deadwood & American Gods‘ Ian McShane) to be a force for good as a Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD) agent, tussles with secret societies, giants, and the resurrected Arthurian witch Nimue (Resident Evil‘s Milla Jovovich) looking to end humanity via a plague and make way for shunned magical/supernatural creatures.

Hellboy still - Daimio, Hellboy, and Alice

While the Guillermo del Toro films embrace the broader fantastical/supernatural world-building and gothic scares from Mignola’s work with del Toro’s signature practical creature work and some creative liberties from the source material, Marshall goes in even harder on the gore and visual stylings. The R-rating, a necessity for all the gory elements littered through the first half of the film and poured on in the second half like a bucket of pig’s blood at prom, does also allow for quite a few more “fuck” lines – including Ian McShane’s opening prologue narration, signaling “This isn’t the Hellboy you thought you knew.”

Speaking of, there are a few changes character-wise that may please fans of the source material – namely the BPRD team of Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim) and spirit medium Alice Monaghan (Sasha Lane). They both have some moments of development, but they are brief – almost fleeting – expositionary flashbacks. And there’s also a fleeting cameo of Nazi hunter vigilante Lobster Johnson (Thomas Haden Church) in the World War II flashback, along with an appearance by Baba Yaga (creature work by Troy James & voiced by Emma Tate) and her chicken-legged house, but she’s relatively underutilized as a character, let alone an overarching villain.

Hellboy still - Nimue and Ganeida

That’s just one of the many problems with the film. While there’s plenty of fan service in the form of included characters, said characters and the surrounding plot is a mess. Recognizable faces from genre and period pieces like Mark Stanley, Brian Gleeson, Alistair Petrie, and even Sophie Okonedo are in the background, briefly popping up for exposition purposes. The familiar Nazis are left to the side, and Baba Yaga is almost shoehorned in as a shadowy background mastermind of sorts – both likely the seeds for a possible sequel. Gruagach (creature work by Douglas Tait & voiced by Stephen Graham), a porcine changeling bent on revenge is quickly reduced to a heavy/villain sidekick, and Nimue – while her motives are familiar (especially if you saw Hellboy II: The Golden Army) – rips off 2017’s The Mummy¬†with her plague.

Additionally, the exposition as a whole weighs down the nearly 2-hour film. It starts with the mostly desaturated Arthurian opening (similar to The Kid Who Would Be King), continues in act 1 with Lady Hatton’s narration of Hellboy’s “birth”, and overstays its welcome with Monaghan and Daimio’s respective flashbacks, among other moments. Exposition aside, the effects and cinematography alone don’t hold a candle to the practicality of del Toro’s film, let alone other larger-budget superhero franchises. To name two, the ectoplasm CGI looks incredibly janky and substandard, as does Hellboy’s fiery dream sequence. There are also at least two CG-assisted trick-one-shot fight sequences that look worse than some of the fight sequences in Aquaman. And that’s saying something – partly because of behind the scenes drama involving the DP, among other elements.

Hellboy still - Bruttholm and Hellboy

As for the soundtrack, it’s on the heavier rock side, which drowns out most other things. From “Rock You Like a Hurricane” to “Welcome to my Nightmare” to “Kickstart My Heart”, the thumping rock drowns out Benjamin Wallfisch’s score, which barely leaves an impact, which is unfortunate, considering some of his recent genre contributions – namely It, Blade Runner 2049, and Shazam!, among others.

All that taken into consideration, while the intentions may have been good, the end product that is Hellboy leaves a sour taste, from flat CG and acting to underutilized characters and plot points wedged in as fan service and seeds for a sequel. Given the individual parts (Harbour and McShane’s casting, the casting swap and inclusion of Dae Kim, Baba Yaga, some shots that visually called back to Mignola’s signature style), I went in with higher hopes but was unfortunately let down by a substandard comic book movie.

Rating: 4.0/10