Hellboy begins with a pre-credits prologue, set in the Dark Ages and establishing the basic premise of the movie. Milla Jovovich plays the Blood Queen Vivian Nimue who unleashes a plague upon England (for some particular reason). She is defeated by King Arthur, dismembered and her body parts scattered to the four corners of the isle. It’s a graphic opening that clearly states the movies intent to be different to its predecessor. This reboot of the franchise aims to be gritty with liberal helpings of ironic banter and dry humour to offset the grim world the characters traverse. For those familiar with Mike Mignola’s work, this vision of Hellboy tries to embrace many aspects of established canon. The story broadly follows the comic books Darkness Calls, The Wild Hunt, The Storm and the Fury. There’s also an attempt to reflect the aesthetic of Mignola’s style. Yet all of this, along with the patent desire to be a R rated movie and to set itself apart from Guillermo del Toro’s versions, makes for a sprawling film that sadly over reaches itself.
Although Hellboy has clear faults, the casting of David Harbour is not one of them. Contrary to what a lot of people expected; he does handle the role well. He clearly grasps the stoical, everyman quality of the character and the way these personality foibles contradict the arcane fantasy world in which he exists. But where Harbour excels, the rest of the cast tend to tread water. Ian McShane steps into John Hurt’s shoes as Trevor Bruttenholm, Hellboy’s adopted father, but the role is hardly taxing for him and the screenplay offers his little to do beyond the arbitrary and expositionary. Milla Jovovich similarly is a very generic villain as Blood Queen Nimue. Her character wants revenge for her summary execution and the disruption of her plans but beyond this, there is no depth to her motivations. Ed Skrein was originally cast as Ben Daimio, but then stood down as he was cognisant of the controversy surrounding changing of the character's ethnicity. He was replaced by Daniel Dae Kim but after all the fuss, the role is still somewhat bland and is nothing more than functional.
The screenplay by comic book creator, film producer, and screenwriter Andrew Cosby, encompasses multiple elements from the comic books. This does lend itself to some enjoyable set pieces but it also results in a story that rapidly moves between multiple locations and characters, resulting in many plot strands simply vanishing from the story. The desire to do so much means that the core relationships which are the foundation of this franchise and whichwere so robust in del Toro’s films, are underdeveloped. And then there are the film’s visual effects which favour the digital over the physical. As ever with modern productions, numerous studios have been contracted to provide work, including Mr. X, Rhythm & Hues, Rise FX and Worldwide FX. Luminaries such as Steve Begg feature in the credits. However the results are varied and somewhat impersonal. Violence without context or emotional content, is often just a spectacle devoid of any cinematic impact.
I have enjoyed director Neil Marshall’s previous work. Dog Soldiers and The Descent were above average genre outings that showed a greater intelligence than their rivals. His absence from cinema in recent years has been due to him working in television and such shows as Game of Thrones, Black Sails and Westworld. Hence a lot of genre fans were quite excited when they learned that he’d be helming the Hellboy reboot. Yet, it would appear that Marshall was not given final edit over his movie and the film has the air of a production that has been continuously “tweaked” throughout its development. The involvement of five production companies may well be the reason for this. It’s a real shame because during the course of its 120-minute running time, there are hints that Hellboy could have been much better. Fantasy as a genre and super hero franchises often explore issues of “difference” and use their tropes as metaphors to scrutinise discrimination, or the difficulty of straddling two cultures. Such ideas are referenced in Hellboy but sadly sidelined in favour of action scenes. I have no problem with the idea of making Hellboy darker and more palatable for adult audiences but not at the expense of the characters soul. But that is sadly what has happened.