It’s as unfair to approach Neil Marshall’s Hellboy pondering the what-ifs of Guillermo del Toro’s un-filmed trilogy closer as it is impossible. While this new take on Mike Mignola’s comic goes to some lengths to establish its own world and tone, there’s no escaping its predecessors’ long shadows.
Which wouldn’t be such a problem if Hellboy 2019 wasn’t quite so slapdash. Yes, there are sequences that show what might have been. The movie is gleefully R-rated but while there’s plenty of the gore you’d hope for from the man behind Dog Soldiers and The Descent and a lot of f-bombs, it’s just as eager to show off its bestiary of comic book creatures. Baby bone-devouring witch Baba Yaga is a particular highlight, the final act features a parade of giant eldritch nightmare monsters and Hellboy faces off with a beastie of one sort or another about once every ten minutes.
However, there’s nothing really tying it all together. The stakes are established early, with 5th century sorceress Nimue (Milla Jovovich) dead set on ending the human race once her various boxed-up body parts are collected and reassembled by ultra-violent pig-faced Gruagach (voiced by Stephen Graham), but that aforementioned eagerness to hurl the title character from one punch-up and puzzle piece to the next makes the whole thing feel disjointed. Hellboy’s regular and increasingly repetitive crises about which side of the eternal conflict between good and evil he should be on are the closest thing we get to a plot but act as deep breaths for the effects team rather than character development.
Marshall does offer some charming eccentric details, most of which come from the British setting. The ludicrous swaggering of an upper crust “Wild Hunt” takes fox hunting to a whole new level of preening barbarity, BPRD-London is located under a chippy and the whole finale is a nod to Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce. From a vampire luchador fight to a feisty changeling, that blend of foul-mouthed humour, slapstick violence and monsters does occasionally work…but only in snatches.
Flashes of personality and nods to the source material (Lobster Johnson!) don’t mask the script’s glaring weaknesses, one or two shockingly poor effects moments or the whiplash editing. The cast lifts the dramatic material but there’s only so much they can do with scattershot humour and clunky exposition (the otherwise strong Sasha Lane is shouldered with some truly awful explanatory dialogue as medium Alice Monaghan). David Harbour works hard under the prosthetics to make the role his own, Ian McShane is fun as a tough love Professor Broom and Daniel Dae Kim is nicely sharp as Ben Daimio, but it’s Jovovich who emerges as MVP with a wonderful regal performance that’s somehow both dignified and self-aware.
There is some fun to be had in the chaos and you can see how a down and dirty horror-tinged reboot could have worked, which makes the messiness all the more frustrating. It feels like what it really needed was a bit more patience, attention and TLC, but there are two Hellboy films like that already.