Film Review: Hellboy

Sarah Ward

Rebooting this comic book hero proves an underdone, overblown slog.
Film Review: Hellboy

Hellboy directed by Neil Marshall.

 When Andrew Cosby started working on the latest Hellboy movie back in 2014, he couldn’t have known how apt his script would become. With the iconic figure originally created on the page by Mike Mignola, it had already graced two features, as written and directed by Guillermo del Toro – but the driving force behind quirky sci-fi TV comedy Eureka was now saddled with continuing Hellboy’s big-screen antics. Cosby’s screenplay really says it all, predicting the current situation perfectly. To kick off the story, an existing power is willingly dismantled into pieces. Then comes the obvious next step: an ill-devised attempt to put everything back together again. 

While this version of the character was originally conceived as the third installment in del Toro’s trilogy – following on from the first two films in 2004 and 2008 – the now Oscar-winning director unsuccessfully pitched his own take instead. The studio stuck with its new direction, and so another filmmaker was brought in for Hellboy circa 2019, as well a fresh star when Ron Perlman declined to be involved. Rather than fitting into the existing Hellboy world, Cosby’s script fuelled a reboot, discarding the film’s predecessors and starting all over again. But reimagining the half-human, half-demon superhero isn’t as straightforward as the movie’s powers-that-be might’ve liked, as the end product shows. In fact, it demonstrates that trying to rebuild something that already works can be an utterly fruitless task. 

In the Neil Marshall (Centurion)-helmed interpretation of Hellboy, it’s the Blood Queen Nimue (Milla Jovovich, Future World) who has initially been cut down to size, not the titular red-hued hero. During the time of King Arthur, she was punished for her wicked witchy ways, and her devoted followers are still clamouring to stitch her back together centuries later. Nimue’s potential re-emergence coincides with Hellboy’s (David Harbour, TV’s Stranger Things) existential malaise – over a colleague’s path, his father’s (Ian McShane, American Gods) influence, being betrayed multiple times over and the fact that everyone seems to think he’ll bring about the end of the world. With the help of his old friend Alice (Sasha Lane, Hearts Beat Loud), he’s soon attempting to grapple with all of the above, although saving humanity from a resurrected sorceress takes precedence.

It doesn’t escape notice that, in a film about a figure who’s so pained by his differences, Hellboy takes great pains to be different from its precursors – and at a significant cost. In an effort to justify its existence, Marshall’s feature makes a significant tonal shift; the wisecracks remain, but this version is simultaneously sullen, sombre, comic and over-the-top. While a character like this one doesn’t lend itself to subtlety, the brooding and brutality are dialled up so high that they become meaningless, rather than engage or make a statement. Add a frown here and a heavy splash of gore there, repeat again and again, and that’s this picture from start to finish. Indeed, instead of adding depth or drama, Hellboy’s grim mood and the movie’s underdone yet overblown CGI violence add to a sea of monotony, where nothing matters or stands out. If both are designed to distract from the hodgepodge story, they also struggle there, with the narrative also unconvincingly shooting for the ‘more is more’ approach.

Try as Harbour might, he can’t be the film’s saviour. His on-screen alter ego is charged with thwarting Nimue’s catastrophic reassembly, but the actor can’t stop the mess that’s assembled around him. Glimpses of spark infuse his performance, but he’s largely dragged down by a relentless slog that manages to be frenetic and bland all at once – and, in a movie that’s so gleeful about its carnage, juvenile as well. More than wasting its eponymous Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense agent, squandering everyone from McShane to Lane to Daniel Dae Kim (The Good Doctor), making Jovovich’s villain one of the worst inclusions on her resume and confusing chaos for entertainment, it’s the feature’s insistence that it’s still serving up rollicking, angsty fun that grates the most. Hell is a movie that needn’t exist, and rams forward with its horns like it knows that fact, but still winks and nods as if everyone will instantly love it. Hellboy is that movie, too.

1 star ★

Hellboy
Director: Neil Marshall
US, 2019, 120 mins
Release date: April 11
Distributor: Roadshow
Rated: R

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay