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'Hellboy' (2019) Review: Far Wilder and More Disturbing

By: Steve Pulaski

Obnoxiously loud with an incoherent narrative that takes a far different direction than both the previous film series and the source material, Neil Marshall's Hellboy was destined to be the red-bodied demon-child of the multiplex regardless of whether or not it predated Guillermo del Toro's beloved movies or not. But there is indeed something here. At times, I was elated by the film's emphasis on horror and grotesque characters as opposed to perfunctory origins story cues. This is what cult classics are made of, and very much the type of film you'd expect a seasoned horror veteran to make.

The first positive is that Marshall (The DescentDog Soldiers) and screenwriter Andrew Cosby (co-creator of the SyFy program Eureka) do not try to make the second follow-up to del Toro's 2004 Hellboy that the Oscar-winning director never got to make. After years of going back and forth with studios who were unwilling to foot the bill on another project that posted disappointing dividends, del Toro gave up on trying to make the concluding chapter of the series he brought to new heights on the big-screen. With both del Toro and fan-favorite Ron Perlman out, Lionsgate opted to reinvigorate the character with a hard-R-rated reboot, in the process recruiting a respected name in the horror community to direct. Marshall and Cosby make no quibbles. This isn't the last decade's Hellboy, but one far wilder and more disturbing.

The film introduces David Harbour's Hellboy, a brooding, red demon with vulgar sensibilities, a horrifically bad temper, and a stone right hand so colossal it would make Thanos flinch. The story begins in Tijuana, where Hellboy finds his missing friend has been transformed into a feral vampire luchador. Hellboy engages in combat with the creature who is already a goner, but soon a pig monster appears and resurrects a Blood Queen named Nimue (Milla Jovovich), who was dismembered and scattered across the British countryside by King Arthur and his seven brave knights. Hellboy then travels to England, where he links up with a young woman named Alice (Sasha Lane, Heart Beats Loud), who happens to be an Irish spirit and Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim), a hard-ass Major who doesn't much get along with Hellboy. The trio try to stop Nimue from exterminating the human race in order to populate the Earth with vile spirits in order to live freely in the world from which they've always been ousted.

Hellboy also tries to have something of a relationship with his adoptive father, Professor Bruttenholm (Ian McShane), who is just as big of a cantankerous, pompous-ass as the demon who he brought into his life many years ago. This relationship is the emotional center of the film, as is the idea that Hellboy himself is prophesied to be on Nimue's side as opposed to sympathetic to the alleged plight of humans. Hellboy has long been alienated, used to being the perceived perpetrator of a crime as opposed to the victim, and a scene where he lashes out at his father in an underground control-room iterates this push-pull between prophecy and perception. 

This is just one of the many intriguing subversions found in Marshall's entertaining reboot. I have a hard time calling the entire film "good," let alone even broadly recommending it, but it's some of the most fun I've had in a movie theater this year thus far. Its hellish visuals and fixation with the ubiquitous horror elements in this series rise to the surface in what can be an assault on your senses in the most brazen way. Characters are repulsive looking, and some moments, be them battles between Hellboy and some ungainly monster, or warped rendering of spirits overtaking a cathedral, are downright scary. Hellboy is a horror film first and a superhero film second. It's not concerned with the minute detailing of origins stories nor unchecked heroism demonstrated by the title character. It goes for blunt-force in the form of chaotic action and sometimes ear-splitting sound, the likes of which occasionally irritating but often mesmerizing.

Like Marshall and Cosby in their own respects, David Harbour succeeds as the blood-red Cambion because he brings an entirely new dynamic to Hellboy. He's slightly blue-collar in his attitude and demeanor, still exhibiting the lawlessness the character has long held as a badge of honor, but able to exercise it more with choice four-letter words. Harbour's gruff vocal tone and unmistakable stature allow him to be believable as a conflicted monster who you sometimes can't determine is a hero or a villain.

Hellboy is not as neatly packaged as it could be from a narrative standpoint, and I confess that after a while, I gave up trying to understand the interworkings of the plot beyond the basics and sunk into the hectic experience. With rumors of the film being a production and editing nightmare (which might explain why a good portion of the dialog is off-screen, ala Scooby-Doo), storytelling coherence was inevitably sacrificed at the expense of what amounts to a gore-splattered thrill-ride. It's enough to make trying to get invested in the story beyond the surface-level details difficult but not so much that it ruins what is ultimately an experience I believe many will embrace but only few will actually enjoy.

One final note: Hellboy might indeed be the loudest film I've ever seen. Consider I'm saying that when I see on average of 120 movies in theaters in any given year. At some points, it was deafening, but at others, it added to the horror elements Marshall clearly put at the forefront of this picture. As various devices, styles, and attributes of films have taught me over many years: there's a time and place for everything.

Grade: C+

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