One of the most striking teaser posters for Neil Marshall’s Hellboy reboot featured our big red buddy standing proudly in front of a massive letter R, warning little “hell”-kids not to venture into the theater to see him without an accompanying guardian. It’s a funny image, loaded with the kind of self-referential humor Marvel has (annoyingly) perfected over the course of approximately nine million movies. Thankfully, Hellboy doesn’t waste time self-consciously referring back to previous iterations, but it does wear that hard-R rating proudly on its battered sleeve. At times, perhaps a little too proudly.
Taking over from the great Ron Perlman, who portrayed the eponymous character in Guillermo Del Toro’s fan favorite double bill (2004’s Hellboy and 2008’s Hellboy: The Golden Army) with a bruising, yet still grumpy, soulfulness is David Harbour. The beloved character actor, who came out in a big way as Sheriff Hopper in Netflix super-hit Stranger Things, is a younger, brattier, and mouthier variation on the character. Hard-drinking and fond of a swear word or fifty, we first meet him attempting to rescue a friend who’s fallen to the dark side in the bowels of (where else?) Tijuana, Mexico.
The film’s dusty prologue, which features a nifty voice-over from Ian McShane (who plays Hellboy’s Pops, taking over from the dearly departed John Hurt), sets up the larger stakes surrounding a vengeful witch (Milla Jovovich, in her first non-Resident Evil role in what feels like forever) who tore England to shreds during the Dark Ages. It’s a bumpy beginning, although gorgeously captured and gory, but it’s the Tijuana-set sequence, which gives us our first glimpse at Hellboy himself, that really hits the ground running and establishes the movie’s colorful, comic-booky feel.
Marshall’s vision for this character is so far removed from Del Toro’s painterly approach the action might as well take place in an entirely different dimension. As it happens, this Hellboy resides in Colorado, but most of his time is spent in the U.K., which makes the clearly Eastern European landscapes (the film was shot predominantly in Bulgaria) a little harder to parse (the appearance of a Euro supermarket is particularly egregious — especially as it’s not even Lidl or Aldi!). It’s not that the settings don’t feel real, just that they don’t feel particularly English.
Adding to this issue are the starring roles for two big-name American actors, both required to do accents. Daniel Dae Kim is well-cast as a dickish M11 agent with a monstrous secret, but the man can’t do a convincing English accent to save his life. Sasha Lane, who broke out in Andrea Arnold’s glorious American Honey, fares slightly better but there’s only so many times she can exclaim “Wicked!” or “Bollocks!” Why the two of them weren’t just left to do their own accents, especially considering Hellboy is so defiantly American, is baffling. Still, they put in a couple spirited performances and are both likeable enough screen presences that it doesn’t matter too much. If anything, it kind of adds to the movie’s big, dumb, fun aesthetic.
The story, such as it is, surrounds Jovovich’s evil Nimue being brought back to life, body part by body part, by a pig monster voiced by proud Scouser Stephen Graham (using his own cadence, as does one Brian Gleeson playing, hilariously, Merlin — “howaya lads, pull that sword outta the stone there for me”). Although he’s a CG creation, Graham’s patsy is a nastily fun little basement-dweller whose interactions with his boss are filled with slimy subservience — he will kill for his queen, many times over, in deliciously horrifying ways. Hellboy is tasked with stopping Nimue before she can wreak havoc on England again, Kim’s agent is forced to work alongside him, and Lane, his kind of childhood bestie, is roped in thanks to her impressive psychic abilities (she vomits up specters; it’s rad).
Amidst all this madness, Hellboy is trying to figure out his own identity, wondering aloud (and often angrily) why he has to fight for humans who treat him like a freak and an outcast. Harbour’s portrayal is strongest in these moments, when he becomes a bratty teenager in spite of the actor, and the body he’s inhabiting, actually being in their mid-forties. Diehard fans of Del Toro’s movies and critics alike have turned against this new incarnation of Hellboy as a petulant child, but it is exactly this petulance, the kind that sees the big guy storming out of rooms, slamming doors and almost breaking them, that makes him so endearing. He’s a little shit, as McShane’s loving father notes, but he wants to be better.
Harbour’s Hellboy is quippier than Perlman’s too, which works maybe 30% of the time. The rest is a bit cringe-worthy, though it’s not the actor’s fault, since the man demonstrably has decent comic timing and a great, bone-dry wit. The script works overtime to try to make us laugh, but very few of the (incredibly broad) jokes actually land. It’s a shame, because when Hellboy is funny, it’s really funny. A running joke about Hellboy smashing his iPhone screen by pressing it too hard is used just enough not to overstay its welcome, while his interaction with the horrid Baba Yaga (the strongest set-piece overall, dripping with menace and horrifying detail) sees him deliberately spilling a revolting stew and sarcastically denouncing his own clumsiness before succumbing to the most disgusting kiss imaginable.
Much is made of Hellboy’s considerable, often unwieldy, size. There’s an admirable tactility to Marhsall’s creation here. Harbour carries his body as though it’s heavy with regret and longing. He’s not light on his feet — Hellboy couldn’t and shouldn’t be, after all — but he’s in control of his movements, even after getting sloppy drunk and slumping sadly on a bar. The fight scenes are messily choreographed but Marshall takes some interesting risks with each one, differentiating them nicely. This approach works best when he mounts a camera seemingly on Harbour’s shoulder during a battle with some hungry giants, the actor ducking in and out of shot.
Only the handful of regrettable uses of dodgy CGI (one of which was glimpsed in the trailer and still looks unfinished in the final product) let the film’s tangibility down, but there’s enough practical gore and gallons of blood on show elsewhere to soften the blow. Impalings, disembowellings, and dismemberments aplenty abound and British horror maestro Marshall (he of The Descent and Dog Soldiers fame) gleefully covers the screen — and, in one instance, the camera itself — in lashings of the red stuff. It’s all a bit London Dungeons or Horrible Histories style, but with a harder comedown, both literal and figurative. It’s gory but never nasty, an important distinction between it and last year’s execrable The Predator, which attempted the same tone.
In spite of rumored issues on set, everybody seems to have had a whale of a time making this bloody, messy little movie. Harbour has boundless enthusiasm for the character and McShane, always a welcome presence, injects their father-son relationship with real nuance. A key sequence sees him lovingly and carefully shaving down his son’s horns before telling him how handsome he is (“I’ll take your word for it,” Harbour responds sadly, his expression suggesting years of inner torment), while another recalls Lady Bird in a weirdly wonderful way. The dynamic between McShane and Harbour is the beating heart of this new Hellboy, even if a stirring speech from the latter is let down, again, by shoddy CGI.
Marshall’s Hellboy is more angry metal-head teen scribbling in his notebook than it is a dark, soulful take on a beloved character, which has understandably alienated, well, everybody. There will also be those who hate it simply because it’s not the third chapter in the Del Toro trilogy. I loved it for what it is; a fun, thrilling, and often very strange take on a comic-book character who’s always only begrudgingly existed in polite society. In a weird way, it’s fitting that this Hellboy hasn’t tracked with mainstream audiences. Give it a chance, nu metal score and all, and you might just find Marshall’s Hellboy to be an entertaining, gory, and often very funny comic book caper with a couple of killer performances from two of our finest living actors at its heart.
If there’s any justice in the world, he will get to make another (and with less studio interference this time around), but if this is it for Neil Marshall’s Hellboy, I reckon we could do a lot worse.
WICKED RATING: 8/10
Director(s): Neil Marshall
Writer(s): Andrew Crosby
Stars: David Harbour, Ian McShane, Milla Jovovich, Sasha Lane, Daniel Dae Kim, Stephen Graham
Release Date: April 12, 2019
Studio/ Production Co: Summit Entertainment
Length: 120 minutes