Firstly, a confession: your writer has never seen the two original Hellboy films. Call it laziness or a lack of preparation, but in this case it seems like the right move. Fan response to this curious reboot– it was as recently as September 2016 that actor Ron Perlman was hopeful for Hellboy 3 – has not exactly been supportive, perhaps due to the dedicated popularity of Guillermo del Toro’s original duology. However, coming into this VERY R-rated reboot with a clean slate certainly does release Neil Marshall’s project from comparisons to its predecessor.
One issue that seems to plague modern cinema’s often-rushed revivals is that they do not seek to create a new identity for themselves – The Amazing Spider-Man, for example, seemed content to utilize the Dr. Connors/Lizard character that the Sam Raimi trilogy had set up in order to maintain a sense of familiarity. Surely, there can be little confusion between these two incarnations of Mike Mignola’s creation. Whilst Perlman’s fully-practical depiction doesn’t seem wrong, this realization of a foul-mouthed demon-spawn just seems right. Say what you want about the weight of his quest to defeat an ancient witch (Milla Jovovich) hell-bent on vengeance after a centuries-old dirt nap – and you could say a lot – there is an authenticity to saving the world with a blue tongue.
The skill and fanbase of del Toro make following in his footsteps a tall order, and Marshall should be recognized for stepping up to do so. Especially impressive is that he did so despite being a proven director himself: his career started with Dog Soldiers and The Descent, horrors with rabid followings of their own and a degree of critical acclaim to match. Though this offering lacks the jump-scare and creeping score of modern horror, it certainly embraces the genre over the fantasy leanings that the previous two preferred. Blood is everywhere in this film: there are bleeding creatures, bleeding civilians and even a bleeding tree at various points throughout the 121 minute runtime. Blood is EVERYWHERE.
Neil Marshall’s obvious and deep knowledge of the literal world of horror is in full display in thefilm’s first non-flashback scene. Brawling (and drinking) through the hedonistic haven that is Tijuana, Mexico, tribute is paid to the country’s long-standing tradition of lucha libre fantasy cinema AND sets the crazy visual tone for the rest of the picture with an insane opening vampire throw-down. The flavor of the film’s soundtrack is set in this scene too – unashamed heavy metal, perfect for brain-dead monster-mashing and even featuring commendable covers, of all things; namely, classics from Scorpions and Alice Cooper.
Bad reviews are bad reviews, however, and they often exist for a reason. Though certainly unique, the post-production side of the film is undoubtedly cause for much of this distaste. A horrifying Baba Yaga that seems inspired by Pan’s Labyrinth aside, the sensational gore and monsters from the covers of pulp fantasy look so animated that they sometimes, unfortunately, look cheap. Ditto the dialogue: though oftentimes comedic for the right reasons, some lines are so ‘on-the-nose’ that they are utterly ridiculous. Views on sand should only be used as punch-lines to banter, not to impassioned arguments. It’s also relentlessly ironic, a very British sentiment which would obviously alienate an overseas audience and often grates to the detriment of its genuine humour.
Ian McShane and his wonderful tonality give the film a sense of prestige whenever he can be seen or heard on-screen. In the title role is David Harbour, the latest actor to parlay his Stranger Things popularity into big-money cinema and who does exactly what is required for a short-tempered man- beast, wisely not straying too far from the formula laid down by Perlman. Everyone else unfortunately ranges from forgettable to lamentable in their performances, their characters not afforded the same knowing sensibility as Hellboy and his ‘dad’ so required to deliver their many, many one-liners. Support players fading into the background would be forgivable, were it not for the fact that most depictions of the title character lead into a larger than life investigative team.
At the time of writing and with a $12 million opening weekend, Hellboy seems destined to be cast aside to the pile of forgotten reboots like Fantastic 4, labeled with the tagged label of big money flop. Just like viewing with no knowledge of the existing Hellboy cinematic universe, this may well work to its advantage. Guillermo del Toro’s magic touch may forever cement his two films as definitively “cult”, but in flying under the radar and embracing its wickedly weird side, this latest adaptation is destined for a niche devotion –even if it never fully commits to its director’s obvious love for supernatural B-movies.