Director: Neil Marshall
Cast: David Harbour, Milla Jovovich, Ian McShane, Daniel Dae Kim, Sasha Lane
You don’t realise the worth of something until you don’t have it anymore. So goes the saying. This rang too true for me after watching director Neil Marshall’s Hellboy. The film is so far removed from Mike Mignola’s comics — on which Guillermo del Toro’s films were based on — and the original comics too. This film being pitched as a reboot makes things simpler for a reviewer. It can be objectively viewed and called out for what it really is — a film that is riding the current wave of superhero craze with absolutely nothing new or memorable to give in terms of either characters or storyline.
The story is written by Andrew Cosby (based on the original comic storyline) and on the scripting level, it is really muddled and riddled with flaws. Being a reboot meant it was a given that we would be treated to the character’s origins — a 1944 Nazi experiment that doesn’t end as expected and instead brings into the world a demon child with a right hand made of stone. Named Hellboy, he is raised by Professor Trevor Buttenholm (Ian McShane), who founds the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD) where Hellboy later works as a paranormal investigator.
But the film doesn’t just tell his story. It gives you a flashback for almost every main character. Hellboy opens with the primary antagonist Nimue (Milla Jovovich) being cut down by King Arthur (yeah, that Arthur) after he reneges on his word to give her, and her family of fairy-tale monsters, an equal home amongst humans. That wonderful twist on the oft-told tale ought to make us root for the wronged Nimue. But her character growth is as one-note as it comes and the whole revenge saga is said.
Then there is the origin story of the medium Alice (Sasha Lane), which is narrated by Hellboy, who in turn gets a second flashback narrated by another character later in the movie. In between all this, Hellboy’s sidekick, Major Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim) — probably as annoyed as us by the other characters taking turns telling these stories — decides to narrate his own origin story.
Fitting this complicated narrative creatively on screen is the task of a director. I had high hopes on Neil Marshall, as he’s directed two of my favourite episodes on Game of Thrones — Blackwater and The Watchers on The Wall. Both were high-energy action episodes, and you can actually see the latter episode’s flourish in an early battle when Hellboy faces three giants. The way the camera moves and follows both the fighting characters and the way Marshall brings the various props into play are all high points of a fight sequence that is wonderfully raw.
There is also another brilliant scene later in the film when we get a peek into Hellboy’s potential future. But two scenes do not a director make, and Marshall is unable to bring this story to life in the non-action narrative scenes. Where Guillermo del Toro played with soft visuals to accentuate the poetic nature and atmosphere of a Hellboy comic, Neil Marshall seems more interested in making this film a gory, R-rated action extravaganza in, I assume, an effort to grab headlines.
Hellboy is not the sort of character you’d expect to get headlines. He’s no Batman or Superman. But Guillermo del Toro and Ron Perlman made him mainstream. The latter looked like he was born to play the character. The brooding, self-deprecating, witty hero, who is more human than demon, was so beautifully encapsulated by Perlman, that David Harbour, who takes over in this film, always had a tough act to follow.
Harbour does his best to make this character work — throwing one-liners at us by the minute — but the script just doesn’t help the actor at all. It is not just the writing that lets Harbour down, but also the makeup. Hellboy is called Big Red, but all we see on screen is a hazy shade of pink. Such poor stylistic choices, combined with the bad sound mixing, provides a below-par audio-visual experience. They say if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But Marshall takes glee in breaking the wheel, remaking it as a square, and asking us to drive with it. What should have been an enjoyable detour before Avengers: Endgame turns instead into a hellish ride.