2019, R, 121 min. Directed by Neil Marshall. Starring David Harbour, Milla Jovovich, Ian McShane, Daniel Dae Kim, Sasha Lane.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., April 19, 2019
It's a tough summoning for a film, to be faced with a torrent of articles about behind-the-scenes struggles and a heavily cut running time (originally announced as 148 minutes, now a flat two hours) before opening weekend. But then Hellboy – the latest adaptation of Mike Mignola's epic comic series about a demon who has chosen humanity over Hades – was already facing a pummeling for what it isn't: a third film in Guillermo del Toro's adaptation.
Honestly, for die-hard fans of the comic (and there are many), it's always seemed like there was too little Hellboy in del Toro's Hellboy. His eponymous 2004 version didn't have the courage to put Ron Perlman's Red front and center, instead adding Rupert Evans as an inessential everyman, who was ejected by the time of Hellboy II: The Golden Army. But then, that sequel was more about del Toro's fairy-tale obsessions than the comic's apocalyptic mysticism, feeling ultimately like an extension of Pan's Labyrinth.
Both were fine in their own way, but they weren't Mignola's vision of who this demon who walks like a man should be (the writer and artist has basically said as much). So immediate points to this version, which feels closer in detail and spirit to the comics. Director Neil Marshall (The Descent and the Game of Thrones episodes "Blackwater" and "The Watchers on the Wall") and screenwriter Andrew Cosby draw heavily from the later run of the original Hellboy comic, most especially The Wild Hunt and The Storm and the Fury cycles. Hellboy (Stranger Things' Harbour) is an agent of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, and so humanity's ultimate defense against interdimensional evils: in this case, Nimue (Jovovich), the Blood Queen, an ancient witch who wants to bring monsters from the shadows. Accompanied by a shape-shifting warrior (Kim) and a cocky young psychic (Lane), he faces a battle that combines elements of Christian Apocalypse, Eastern European myth, and Arthurian legend.
Cosby's script (most especially his comedy beats) feel close to his time as series creator and writer on quirky sci-fi dramedy Eureka, and Harbour's Hellboy doesn't feel too removed from the working man's blues of that show's Sheriff Jack Carter – an ordinary guy in an extraordinary place, mostly handling the wondrous with exasperation and a solid right to the chin. Yet Hellboy the character is as ill-served by an astoundingly clumsy edit as Hellboy the film. Harbour's version owes a lot to the version in the Hellboy in Mexico graphic novel (referenced in a lucha vampire opening sequence), who is kind of a sulky teen, rebelling against his "father," Professor Broom (McShane). He's quite happy dismembering giants and dealing with the occult, if he gets to shed a few gallons of someone else's blood (and this is bloody: Marshall exsanguinates half of London, with some incredibly impressive and gruesome monster designs). However, that violence is his way of navigating his divided identity and man and monster, and his real story is in Nimue exploiting his emotions, not the pitched battles. Yet everything getting to and from those set-pieces feels rushed, leaving less of a narrative and more of an effects reel.
Not all the blame can be laid at the feet of the hack-job edit and rushed exposition. McShane just McShanes his way through his part, and while the production should be applauded for reversing an earlier casting decision and placing Kim as the cursed Major Ben Daimio, having Lane as Alice Monaghan (in the comic, a fiftysomething Irishwoman), as she delivers the script in a generic fake London accent as a glib one-liner, does nothing to help affairs.
When Hellboy does succeed, it is glorious. Harbour and Jovovich understand this kind of inflated supernatural action, and when it's just them inhabiting the line between two worlds (such as Hellboy's trip to face the child-eating Russian witch, Baba Yaga), or when the narrative is given time to breathe, there's a sense of the movie this could and should have been. But instead it gets choked out by those omitted moments, by what feels like missing sequences or by expositional scenes that have been hacked down to incomprehensibility, or burdened with a voiceover that shouldn't be necessary if the moment carried its own weight.
Maybe Marshall's cut cured all – or at least enough – of those banes. Maybe it didn't. But Hellboy 2019 proves that the source material is still magical enough to justify more screen time. It could just be that the only way to truly catch its mélange of the mystical and the profane, the bloody and the heroic, is a prestige TV series. Hellboy's strength has always been in its huge cosmology, and it could just be that the iron binds of a movie can never truly give Red the expansive world he needs to defend.