When you’ve loved a character as long as I’ve loved Hellboy, you begin to have a certain level of expectations when it comes to his cinematic adventures. From the the original Del Toro films to his two animated flicks, Big Red has always delivered on his signature humor, wit, strength, and paranormal badass detective nature. Yet, even with all these great adaptations, none of them were exactly the version of the guy readers fell in love with in the comics.
But with the brand new Lionsgate film, directed by Neil Marshall and starring Stranger Things David Harbour, there is a promise of more accuracy and homage to creator Mike Mignola’s comics – but does that make a Hellboy film good by default? The answer is tad bit complicated.
In the 2019 flick, we are immediately sucked into Marshall’s take on Mignola’s lavishly grim world. The Wild Hunt arc is at the focus – one that deals with an evil witch (Nimue, played by Milla Jovovich) being chopped to pieces by King Arthur, with her limbs thrown into various boxes, so that she’ll never reek havoc on mankind again. But unlike Mignola’s more polished take on swords and sorcery from the comics, Marshall’s rendition doesn’t hold anything back, in the most delightfully campy of ways. Think Army of Darkness with a much more slick yet lovingly cheap approach.
What follows is an introduction to our hero. In an attempt to help his vampire-turned friend, HB travels to Mexico, and enters a wrestling fighting ring to see if he can rescue his buddy before the sun or garlic cloves hit him. Though this might sound a bit insane per the description, this scene comes from the Hellboy in Mexico series, and is among one of the few things this adaptation nails perfectly in every possible way.
Unfortunately, Hellboy isn’t so successful with his mission, but is right back to work when his adoptive father, Professor Bruttenholm (Ian McShane) requests his assistance on a job to go track down some giants. There’s a lot of other shenanigans that occur, characters that are introduced (including BPRD members Alice Monaghan and Ben Daimio, played by Sasha Lane and Daniel Dae Kim, respectfully) but somehow the plot eventually gets Hellboy and Nimue to cross paths – and a battle to save the world from mass destruction begins.
Now, if anything above sounds incredibly chaotic, then you’re beginning to process the unfortunate clumsy nature of this new Hellboy – a movie that partially has an interesting new take on the character, while simultaneously producing the kind of cinematic garbage that is usually only reserved for the Walmart $5 bin.
First, with just the script alone, the decision to include not one, not two, but almost five iconic Hellboy tales into one film it absolutely bonkers. Sure, it is enjoyable to see the likes of the Baba-Yaga, Lobster Johnson, and many other bits of Hellboy lore brought to life on the big screen – but if none of them are going to get any sort of moment to simmer, other than a bit of poorly written exposition, than all of that effort to include them just seems like a total waste.
Another misuse comes in the form of the film’s visuals being compromised. In an effort to stay cheap, there is a strong use of practical effects. Now, we’re not talking Shape of Water here, but considering its rumored 50 million dollar budget, the end results of make-up artist Joel Harlow’s work on Hellboy and the rest of the creatures was quiet impressive. Unfortunately, the CGi paired with these in-camera choices is pathetic by comparison, and really diminishes the hard work of the crew.
This fact became painfully all too real during a scene near the climax of the film – in which we see one of Alice’s paranormal gifts. David Harbour gives a really good facial performance here, but what he is reacting to is a visual I can only describe as a floating booger genie with Ian McShane’s face a-top it. Why someone thought it was a good idea to waste the talents of everyone involved, by not just doing a practical effect to show Alice’s abilities instead, is beyond me. Its one of those mysteries that even the Tootsie Pop Owl may never truly know.
But what can be easy to discover in this film, when it comes to the positives, is the fun and great work had by three specific cast members: David Harbour, Milla Jovovich and Sasha Lane.
As mentioned, Harbour is doing some of his best work here, and is trying to bring a rough but lovable nature to Hellboy even through 40 pounds of make up and some pretty awkward dialog. In fact, the best scenes in the movie are the ones where Harbour is just allowed to express through mannerisms the weight on Hellboy’s shoulders, embodying the reasons why the character is so beloved, and David brings that oddly related struggle with effortless ease.
Milla and Sasha on the other hand, completely know what kind of a movie they’re in. With both of their parts being watered down from their comic book counterparts, its impressive to see the amount of delight and hamminess they bring to their roles. They also have great chemistry with David throughout, making it sad that (especially evident from the trailers) many of their scenes together were ultimately cut from the finished product.
At the end of the metaphorical film reel, this new Hellboy becomes something of a cautionary tale. It had such potential for it to be another interesting take on Mignola’s work, but instead became an example of too many cooks (meaning 16 producers) in the kitchen, along with other recently discovered behind the scenes drama, all showing the effects of an non-organic filmmaking process.
But if this Hellboy film did anything right, its getting people interested and excited about a comic book hero who isn’t like the rest, and needs a bit of noticing from above the depths of hell. And that’s something I’ll never complain about.