Movie Review: “Hellboy” – Special Hell

Written by Jeremiah Greville April 28, 2019

I’m a Hellboy fan.

Not just of the original Del Toro/Perlman films, but also the original Mike Mignola comics and spin-offs. In fact, I’ve got every friggin’ Hellboy universe graphic novel at home on my shelf. I’ve even got the action figures. So…yeah, I’m a fan. I say that at the outset because this review is going to be a bit different. I’m going to talk a bit about the history of Hellboy across the comics and past films. The comic universe has been ongoing for twenty five years, and in that time two Hellboy films (Hellboy and Hellboy II: The Golden Army) have been released, both starring Ron Perlman and directed by Guillermo Del Toro. This won’t be an exhaustive look at all of that, but will give you an idea of the context in which this new film exists. I didn’t hate the new Hellboy film as much as most critics, but I didn’t love it either. In a way, that’s almost worse.

Welcome to my own special hell.

Hellboy (2019) is directed by Neil Marshall and stars David Harbour as the titular heroic demon. The basics are simple: he’s a demon who was born at the end of World War II and raised to hunt and fight monsters for the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, or B.P.R.D. Got it? Good. That’s really all you need going in, and both the 2004 film and this one go over that same origin in their own ways. He’s a bit hairier, a bit more jagged, and a bit thicker around the waist this time, but this Hellboy is pretty much the same as his Perlman counterpart. He quips anytime he isn’t smashing monsters, has issues fitting into the human world, and spends time with a side-cast of colourful Bureau characters who double as his only family. And this is my first issue with the film.

“Hellboy will pay what he owes.”

You see, both movies take this approach—but it isn’t the Hellboy from the comics. Sure, Comic Hellboy quips at times — but the quips are the exception. So is the smashing. Comic Hellboy is much more silent and contemplative, and far less at odds with the human world than he is in the films. He’s pretty much accepted for the celebrity saviour he is, and when the quips and violence come, they’re earned. Because the comic character isn’t always treading the same conflict, Mignola and others have actually been able to tell stories beyond that experience. His world is atmospheric and dripping with life. He’s often alone away from the Bureau, yet never feels like an edgy loner. He’s not particularly eloquent or clever, and never tries to prove himself. He’s effortlessly cool, and comes from an age that was anything but: the nineties.

Hellboy was created in 1993 by Mike Mignola, and hasn’t really changed since his first appearance. That’s a big deal — are you the same person you were in 1993? The nineties were an extreme time for comic books, and almost every character was pushing the limit in ‘cool and edgy’. Hellboy certainly sported the look: he’s got a goatee, a trench-coat, a pony-tail, a belt full of silly pouches, a ridiculously large gun — the works. He’s as nineties a cliche as there ever was. And yet, from his first appearance, it was clear he transcended the trappings of his time because he wasn’t trying to be cool in the same way other nineties characters were. He wasn’t flexing or pretending. He was allowed to be silly. He rarely said anything epic in the face of battle. He was contemplative and stoic, but rarely brooding.

In addition, his comic stories have taken place in real time since his first appearance — around twenty five years have passed in the comic universe as well as the real one, and still, Hellboy remains largely the same. That kind of staying power doesn’t exist without something substantial backing it up. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that there’s something special about the big red goofball, as well as the universe he inhabits. This is why I’m a fan, and why this character has received two separate movie adaptations since his debut.

And knowing all that, we can get back to the movies. Del Toro understood the earnest nature of the character, and that he’s not always the funniest, coolest guy in the room. Perlman brought that to his performance, and in 2004 delivered a Hellboy with charm and imperfection. However, the world they inhabited limited the character’s growth. Del Toro’s vision for Hellboy’s world was too small for the character that Mignola dreamt up. They were able to squeeze two movies out the idea, and had long-gestating plans for a third, but they didn’t quite get there. They made a good character, but were already going way off-book by the second film, stretching for ideas when Mignola already had a world full of them. The end product was more Del Toro than Mignola, and while the movies were good, they weren’t an accurate adaptation.

“You know what’s worse than being stabbed in the back?”

Enter the new Hellboy film, which was billed from the outset as the most accurate adaptation of the comics to date. Now, accuracy isn’t everything. Fidelity to the source material is great, but the story should always come first. The Del Toro Hellboy films are still good, despite their inaccuracy, because they focused on the story first and foremost. The new Hellboy film is more accurate to the strange world of the comics, but doesn’t really seem all that concerned with a cohesive narrative. You’ll be able to understand what’s happening without any prior knowledge — the film isn’t rocket science — but without being familiar with the Mignola comics (affectionately dubbed the Mignolaverse by fans), every new bit of weirdness is just that: weirdness.

Characters in the new film are introduced without ceremony or reason. Strange sequences take place resolving old plot-threads that were never set up, while new threads are established and left unresolved for the (wishful) sequel. Much of it is fan-service, and I was delighted to see so many little hints and nods to some of my favourite characters and ideas. But fan-service isn’t enough to save a mediocre film. This time, while the world has gratefully expanded to meet the character, the story hasn’t, and the movie suffers because of it. There are defining moments between characters that feel entirely meaningless and unearned unless you have a connection to them. I laughed and cheered out loud during several moments that will mean entirely nothing to casual viewers, and that’s a big problem. Filmmakers: it’s not enough to assume that your audience cares — you have to make them care!

Boy oh boy, I wish I could spoil some of my favourite parts of this film, but I can’t. If you’re a Hellboy or Mignolaverse fan like me, then there are some bits that you will straight up love. But for everyone else…you’ll be left wondering what happened, or what it all meant. Even the mid-credits sequence is another mixed-bag of callbacks that only hardcore fans will care about. I cared — I loved it. But most won’t, and frankly they have no reason to. To boil it down, there’s so much that this film gets right about the Hellboy universe, and so much more it could do within that universe. But most audience members won’t care about any of it, because they have no reason to. This isn’t the fault of the audience — it’s the filmmaker’s. I definitely want a sequel, but I’m probably one of the few.

Even fans of the Del Toro films may be left wanting here, as the new movies carries none of the earnest heart or soul of those entries. The new Professor Broom — now simply Trevor Bruttenholm — is played by Ian McShane with none of John Hurt’s original warmth. The new B.P.R.D is bigger and slicker, but with none of the sense of scale in the first film. The organization never feels like a real group inhabiting a real place. David Harbour’s Hellboy is largely the same as Ron Perlman’s, but spends too much time posturing and spouting one-liners to show any real depth. The film is doing exactly what the original comic Hellboy avoided in the nineties: trying too damn hard to be cool.

“Hellboy doesn’t add up.”

It comes across everywhere, from the blood-soaked CGI fight scenes to the constant rock-riffs that punctuate every big moment. It’s a bit like fast food: each bite goes down smooth, but by the third or fourth helping they start to lose their flavour. It’s nice to have an R-rated Hellboy film, and the movie doesn’t shy away from gore or coarse language, but the violence gets a bit over-the-top by the end and loses its impact. Highly disturbing concepts and imagery are casually thrown at the audience with little-to-no preparation. Horror follows humour with no consideration or artistry. And again — take it from an expert, here — this is Hellboy. This is not.

Maybe the film would work better if the supporting cast were entertaining, but they don’t fare well either. Not one, but TWO American actors are set playing U.K. characters with disastrous accents. Sasha Lane and Daniel Dae Kim both suffer as Alice Monaghan and Ben Daimio, respectively. They do their best, but should’ve stuck with their original accents, or been recast. Seriously, it’s distracting and embarrassing. Milla Jovovich rounds out the cast as the villainous Nimue, and while she’s fine when she’s allowed to act, the filmmakers seem more interested in having her stand around half-dressed with a blank stare. Nobody is awful in their role, but holy hell — nobody is great either.

The CGI and practical effects are similarly mixed. Some of it is great, and Harbour’s Hellboy makeup may even be a step above Perlman’s, but much of it isn’t. Some of the computer-generated blood effects bring to mind the goofy missteps of the first Blade film. But that was twenty damn years ago, and we expect better now. There’s an effort in the second half to fill the frame with all manor of monsters and creatures, but none of them are memorable or evoke Mignola’s distinctive style. Unlike Del Toro, who brought his own artistry to his films’ designs, here the monsters are just lifeless and bland. They could’ve been taken from any film and dumped into this one sight unseen.

And worst of all, at least for me, is the story, which retreads the same character arc and basic themes as the first Del Toro film. Sure, the characters, setting, and overall situation have changed, but it’s really a new coat of paint on the same idea. This is why I took the time to mention the Mignolaverse comic book Hellboy at the start — getting past these themes is what really allows Hellboy to shine as a character. He’s not The Thing. He’s not Quasimodo. He’s not Frankenstein’s Monster. His is not a story about fitting in or finding his place or loving himself. It’s about accepting and confronting destiny — and even then, only when he’s not doing something more fun like getting drunk with ghosts. The new Hellboy film pays lip-service to all of that, but can’t escape its own adolescence to truly embrace its full potential.

“Ow. That hurt.”

Hellboy isn’t as bad as the Rotten Tomatoes score would have you believe. There are things to enjoy here, and a good film struggling to emerge from the depths. But unless you’re as invested in the character as I am, a lot of this film will just seem like a bunch of pointless rubbish. You’ll be wondering what movie you stumbled into early on, and still trying to figure that out long after it’s finished. It’s a hell of a misfire, and could have been so much more. Frankly, there is potential for a sequel, but at this point I’ll be surprised if the studio feels any faith at all in the property going forward. This isn’t the adaptation the character deserves, and I doubt it will make any new fans of the material. One of my favourite characters may have squandered his last best chance at a decent film adaptation, and it hurts.

Again, welcome to my own special hell.

My Rating: 4.5/10

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About Jeremiah Greville

Jeremiah Greville is a pretty rad beard that's attached itself to a human face. The beard likes movies, television, comic books, and gentle finger rubs. The human likes pizza and sleep. When they work together, they write reviews. Hope you enjoy them!

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