It’s always a worry when film reviews are embargoed until practically the day of release. Nothing was being said about Hellboy on social media, and even marketing for the film was subdued. Rumours then began circulating during the week of release of a horrendous production with fallouts between producers, cast members, and director, Neil Marshall. To say my expectations were low is an understatement. Much to my surprise, however, I think those low expectations helped Hellboy.
Hellboy stars David Harbour in the titular role, a demon sent from hell to win the war for the Nazi’s before he was taken under his wing by Professor Broom (Ian McShane). Fast forward 70 years and Hellboy is now a fully grown demon and travels the world dealing with paranormal incidents. An Arthurian legend follows in his wake and it’s up to Hellboy to rid the world of evil once and for all.
There is so much to unpack with this film. It’s been rattling around in my brain incessantly since I left the cinema. I have so many thoughts about it that I’ll try to piece together somewhat coherently. The overriding thought, however, is this: I had a really fun time with it. Hear me out, guys. This was set up to fail in so many ways that expectations could not have been lower. The 12% Rotten Tomatoes rating it holds at the time of writing is brutal. And yet, I was enjoying it throughout. I was laughing in the right places. I was surprised – in a good way – at the sheer brutality of it all. David Harbour pays the role terrifically. It has its flaws, of which there are many and I will get to them, but I’m mostly positive about the whole thing.
Let’s get one thing straight: the film lives and dies by David Harbour. If he wasn’t full on board with the character, this wouldn’t work. The one thing the overwhelmingly negative reception could agree on is how good Harbour is; he’s great. He’s utterly convincing as a guy who could smash your face in if you pissed him off but he’s also refreshingly funny. He laughs in the face of the lunacy that befalls him, comedically insulting the needlessly graphic giant head display at one point, criticising the London police (“hey! I’m on your side!”) at another. Harbour, through the mounds of facial prosthetics, oozes charm and he makes Hellboy an easy to root for protagonist.
Ian McShane, a veteran of the game who’s found himself a niche in films involving underground corporations after his stints in John Wick and the TV series American Gods, is an affable actor for Harbour to bounce off of, even if McShane could sleepwalk through a role like this and make it look good. He adds a necessary level of gravitas to sell some of the ridiculousness on show, but the main selling point is how his Professor Broom and Hellboy interact. Their father-son dynamic is always prevalent, and he has a nice effect on Hellboy to make him seem like a stroppy teenager at times, but Harbour makes it work. Their relationship was a major positive.
As we delve into the meat of the film, the action is remarkably satisfying. If you can look beyond more than a few instances of dodgy, early 2000s CGI, there’s so much fun to be had. It truly starts with an extremely enjoyable Hellboy vs 3 Giants action sequence that begins in a way that I feel all major action scenes should – with a long-take. It’s almost entirely and somewhat obviously done through visual effects, but there’s something viscerally enjoyable about one, erratic shot that spins around its key players, keeping all of the key moments in the centre of the screen, and making it fun to watch. As the blood begins to burst out of the victims at an increasingly dramatic rate, director Neil Marshall amps up the brutality with some deliciously violent kill shots while showcasing Hellboy’s skills as a glorified monster hunter. It’s a brilliantly silly scene that ends in a ridiculous, spinning camera swirl, but it hit the sweet spot. Neil Marshall has a knack for being able to shoot massive action after efforts like the “Blackwater” episode of Game of Thrones and the genuinely terrific Dog Soldiers, and his knack shines through here.
Solid action remains throughout, and it for me it earned its 15 rating (or R rating, for you Americans amongst us) by making fun of it. It embraces the absurdity by just turning it all up to 11. Limbs are torn, bodies shot through, bodies ripped in half as viscera smudges the camera. It’s all in there, but it’s done in such a way that it’s meant to be laughed at rather than seen as a gory kill you must look away from. There are more than a few horror elements in here, but the level of gore never reaches horrific levels. There is so much violence that if it wasn’t played mostly humorously then it wouldn’t have worked.
Hellboy starts to struggle when the details start to wear thin. The early 2000s CGI is hard to look past in certain scenes – there are several scenes around an important tree with CGI creatures that wouldn’t look out of place in a PS3 game cutscene, both séance-esque scenes have dodgy facial effects, and the CGI blood, while fun, doesn’t have any sort of impact because it’s so obviously digital.
This is where the inevitable Guillermo Del Toro comparisons begin to creep in. As a director absolutely convinced in the art of practical effects over digital effects, Del Toro’s original Hellboy (2004) had that practical charm that really made the film work. The monsters Ron Perlman’s terrific version of Hellboy fought had that edge because of how beautifully designed they were. The effects-heavy versions we see in this film don’t have the same impact.
One of the main antagonists is Gruagach, a vile pig monster who’s something of a henchman for Milla Jovovich’s criminally one-note villain Nimue The Blood Queen, nearly steals the show. He’s a rare monster that’s mostly practical, but its design stumbles with the face as it uses visual effects to make it talk. I found it distracting whenever it was on screen. It’s a shame that it was so frustrating because Stephen Graham’s vocal performance is hilarious, using his natural Liverpool accent to add an extra layer of comedy to proceedings. You’d be forgiven for thinking Gruagach was voiced by Robot Wars legend Craig Charles because I know that’s who I thought it was until the credits rolled. Gruagach was hilarious and had many of the film’s biggest laughs in my cinema came from him, particularly as his frustrations with Hellboy reached a breaking point with a frustrated “fuck you, Hellboy!”
There are several scenes here that feel like the production team were throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. Not all of it does. There’s one truly bizarre scene with a terrifying creature called Baba Yaga – yes, the John Wick nods continue – that feels the most Del Toro of the whole film but remains severely underexplored. Baba Yaga’s design is horrifying as it crab walks around the scene, but it reeks of sequel bait rather than anything truly important for this one. Baba Yaga is the best designed monster in the film – after Hellboy himself – so it’s a shame it was so underused.
Around two thirds through the film, the criticisms of the film I’d read began to seep through. There’s an extremely rough section that you need to wade through that involves two stops at Grand Exposition Station as it quickly introduces and dismisses crucial bits of plot information that almost have the words “this was a reshoot” plastered on the walls. Exposition is a severe stumbling block for the film. It feels the need to explain one scene as its happening with some phoned in narration from Ian McShane before having Professor Broom explain the scene again later in the film, just to remind us. Exposition is one of my most hated film sins, and Hellboy sadly as it in abundance. It’s a shame that one particularly important scene – a link to the Arthurian aspect mentioned earlier – is so exposition heavy because it has a really fun bit of comics lore behind it as it attempts to blend the comics with a fantasy legend.
Underdevelopment is a running theme throughout the film. Despite the amount of fun I had with it, there are several aspects that I wish were either taken further, or the underdeveloped moments were taken out in order to streamline the experience more. Daniel Dae Kim’s Daimio is ultimately irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, while Sasha Lane’s Alice Monahan struggles to win you over thanks largely to her astonishingly bad accent that was even dubbed in a failed bid to improve it. Baba Yaga felt like a villain for the unlikely Hellboy 2, and The Osiris Project tangent felt like a neat concept for an entire film that ultimately was just used to give Hellboy something to do while the film gets itself to the main plot. As previously mentioned, Milla Jovovich is wasted in her role as Nimue, who does almost nothing and then leaves, despite being the main villain. The film does the smart thing of focusing largely on Hellboy battling his inner, ahem, demons, but there is too much to explore here for any of it to make a lasting impact beyond Hellboy himself.
Regardless, my experience with Hellboy is a mostly positive one, thanks to David Harbour, Stephen “Craig Charles” Graham, and the brilliantly choreographed action sequences. I forgot to mention a delightfully horrifying scene involving that skeleton monster you see destroying Tower Bridge in the trailer that’s worth the admission price alone. Frankly, I’m surprised at the negative reception Hellboy had. There are problems abound that I didn’t even mention – if I told you Ainsley Harriott and Love Island make an appearance in 10 seconds of screen time you’d think I was lying to you – but they felt like missed opportunities rather than true negatives. In all, I found it extremely hard to not have fun with Hellboy when David Harbour so clearly was.
Directed by: Neil Marshall
Cast: David Harbour, Milla Jovovich, Ian McShane, Sasha Lane, Daniel Dae Kim