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Hellboy Review: Sympathy for the Devil

This production has all the elements you want from a Hellboy flick, but is that enough?

The last Hellboy movie arrived in theatres before the Obama administration took office. And the series’ fans have clamoured for a follow-up in the decade since. Following in the footsteps of a horror movie auteur like Guillermo del Toro looks like a no-win prospect. Stick too close to del Toro’s vision, and you’re a pale imitator. Stray too far, and you risk alienating loyal fans. But a filmmaker who strikes the right balance would receive the keys to a wonderfully twisted kingdom.

If there’s a director who knows a thing or two about twisted kingdoms and horror movies, it’s Neil Marshall. His credits include Game of Thrones (Blackwater, The Watchers on the Wall) and the bloodcurdling horror flick The Descent. Marshall doesn’t waste any time putting his stamp on the franchise. For better and for worse, Marshall’s violent, bombastic, and irreverent take on the material takes the series in a new direction.

Nearly 1500 years ago, King Arthur and his wizard Merlin ended a bloody war between monsters and men. Their last-ditch effort succeeded in vanquishing Nimue The Blood Queen (Milla Jovovich) just as she was on the cusp of overthrowing humanity. They chopped her body into pieces, locked them in magic boxes, and sent them off to secret locations.

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Cut to present day and a psychopathic man-pig called Gruagach (voiced by Stephen Graham) is tracking down Nimue’s scattered remains. He’s on a mission to resurrect the Blood Queen so she can usher in an apocalypse. All that stands in Gruagach’s way is the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense; an organization that defends humanity from supernatural threats. And they’ve got one hell of a secret weapon.

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Hellboy (David Harbour) is the Bureau’s ace in the hole. He is a gruff, beer-swilling, red-skinned demon who strayed into the Earth realm when he was a toddler. He was taken in by the sympathetic Professor Broom (Ian McShane) and raised as his own son. There’s one huge problem, though. Ancient prophecies said to usher in the world’s end mention Hellboy. Whether he causes an apocalypse or halts it is up for debate, and for now, he’s on team-human. Hellboy joins forces with Alice (Sasha Lane), an old friend and powerful medium and Major Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim) a special ops guy who doesn’t trust demons, to prevent Nimue’s ascension.

If you’re a fan of the Hellboy character, his allies and enemies, and the comic book’s sprawling mythology, that’s what this film delivers. What it’s not, is a Guillermo del Toro movie. Hellboy 2019 is the work of a filmmaker intent on blazing their own trail. Neil Marshall and del Toro’s Hellboy universes couldn’t be more different. GDT’s films pulled from his love of pulp novels and revel in his gothic sensibilities. The old movies are creepy and atmospheric whereas the new flick is loud, intense, and in-your-face.

Andrew Cosby’s script packs a lot into Hellboy’s 120-minute runtime. We meet all kinds of characters, travel to many strange locations, and burn through a lot of plot. The movie rushes over you in a whiz-bang-boom fashion. Marshall’s film is perfect for a generation of viewers who can’t focus on a story for more than a few moments without glancing at their phone. The filmmaker’s insistence on racing towards the next cool thing starts to suck the air out each sequence.

The movie is at its best when it embraces the series’ eccentricity. We first meet Hellboy in Tijuana as he looks for a missing agent/drinking buddy. The journey takes him into a wrestling ring where he battles a vampiric luchador who morphs into a bat as they tussle. Let me say that again. A big red demon wrestles a vampire luchador! But the film rarely pays off its batty setups.

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Part of the problem is the film’s frantic editing and cinematography. The action is at best inscrutable, and at its worst, headache-inducing. The camera shakes and rattles around to the point where you can’t track the action. And the constant muzzle flashes amidst the dark scenes left me squinting at the screen. The action sequences aren’t thrilling, creative, or fun to watch – unless you’re a gorehound.

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Hellboy features some of the most vicious violence you’ll see in a mainstream movie this year. That’s not a knock, just something to keep in mind if you’re squeamish. Heroes and villains both hack their opponents to pieces. We watch a ghoul feast on a bowl of soup made from dead children. And I lost track of the number of eyes that get stabbed, poked, and gouged. Amidst all the chaos, demons and innocent bystanders alike get shredded into piles of spaghetti.

The movie does feature some standout creature designs. Gruagach and the luchador vampire stand out, as does Baba Yaga, a hideous ghoul who skitters about in unnatural ways thanks to human contortionist Troy James. And Harbour looks fearsome and sympathetic under layers of red prosthetics. This film does an excellent job with its practical effects makeup. The CGI characters don’t hold up nearly as well.

Harbour does a first-rate job as the film’s eponymous hero. His take on the character feels different from Ron Perlman’s performance. Perlman’s character came across as too cool for the room; a guy who has been around the block and seen a lot of strange s#it on his watch. Harbour brings an entirely different energy. He’s more of an inexperienced, bro-y oaf. He’s not as sensitive as Perlman’s Hellboy, but he’s easier to rattle.

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Jovovich’s Nimue is one of the picture’s sore spots. Her performance during the movie’s prologue, made me think I was watching a much campier genre flick. Her pitched up villainess operates on a different frequency than most of the other characters. She’s doing Adam West-era Batman while everyone else is in Tim Burton’s version. It doesn’t help that the script only provides her with token villain work.

Hellboy’s supporting cast is fine but nothing to write home about. McShane, Lane, and Kim’s characters are never fleshed out. They quip, banter, and have each others’ backs but they never feel like a unit. Somehow McShane leaves a stronger impression in the John Wick trailer than he does here. The film never settles down long enough for us to get to know these characters. The problem is I never wanted it to either.

Marshall looked like the right director to take the series’ reigns. He has genre movie cred, can tell a story through action, and has some fine horror films under his belt. But his skill set didn’t translate to Hellboy. The most compelling aspect of Hellboy comics is the character’s rich mythology. But instead of savouring it like aged whiskey, Marshall burns through it like gasoline. This production has the elements you want from a Hellboy flick – solid cast, gruesome monsters, a high stakes story – but ultimately lacks soul.

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