Writers: Andrew Cosby (script), Mike Mignola (characters)
Cast: David Harbour, Milla Jovovich, Ian McShane, Stephen Graham, Sasha Lane, Daniel Dae Kim
Running time: 120mins
What’s the story: In modern-day Britain, Hellboy (Harbour) battles wicked witch Nimue (Jovovich), who has returned to unleash pestilential havoc on the land. Hellboy is joined by his adoptive father and demon hunter Professor Broom (McShane), the magically gifted Alice (Lane) and gruff Special Forces agent Daimio (Dae Kim).
What’s the verdict: Hellboy 2019 arrives with a diabolical number of strikes against it.
Fan backlash that it’s not a Guillermo Del Toro/Ron Perlman reteaming to tie up story threads from 2008’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Production woe tales of director Neil Marshall being sidelined by producers, clashing with star David (Stranger Things) Harbour, abandoning the project when his cut was rejected and ultimately suing for alleged breach of contract.
But, the critical vitriol in which this harder take on Mike Mignola’s creation is being boiled is astonishing. 15% on Rotten Tomatoes (as of writing) does not describe this film.
A fusion of monster heroics, folklore and fairytales, rural English horror and video nasties, Neil Marshall (and co…) deliver a rock n’ roll superhero movie with a liberal ladling of “15” certificate bodily destruction.
All involved (including reportedly Mignola) avoid the shadow of Del Toro’s 2004 Hellboy and its sequel. As befits Marshall’s previous output Dog Soldiers and The Descent, this movie (his first since 2010’s Centurion) is an action-horror flick with a clear race-against-time mission.
Although being a reboot, the opening of Del Toro’s film is recreated here as a flashback, depicting Hellboy’s origin by way of Nazi magic. Other flashbacks fill in the gaps on new characters.
An England-centric plot is further reminder of who is behind the camera. Famed historic witch site Pendle Hill looms large in the story. A St. Paul’s climax and numerous references to Arthurian legend move this Hellboy away from the mutant Nazis of the first movie into ancient folklore and devilry.
Not that everything is magical. We may never see Marshall’s longer cut, and here Milla Jovovich’s Nimue rarely rises above the world-conquering schemes of most Marvel villains. Moments promise a deeper plot centred on revenge for Man’s persecution of monsters, but they remain fleeting. Phallic-images of Excalibur suggesting a battle of the sexes remain a missed opportunity.
Harbour is a likeable lead, playing younger and more callow than Perlman’s portrayal (and minus the cigar habit). As Hellboy’s adoptive father, McShane delivers trademark gravelly-voiced charm, albeit harder-edged than John Hurt in Del Toro’s movies.
Hellboy’s motley crew is filled out with American Honey’s Sasha Lane (delivering attitude and an English accent) and Daniel Dae Kim as a hostile Special Forces operative reluctantly joining the gang.
On the dark side, the Stephen Graham-voiced pig-man Grugach is a potty-mouthed, Scouse-accented creation to treasure. Enthusiastically piecing together Nimue, dismembered and scattered centuries before, the film’s big laughs come from this pork crackling.
Even if the quest story leaves you cold, the film brims with novelty and arresting imagery.
An encounter with giants and a changeling deliver thrills, quirks and English absurdism. Hellboy’s dinner with Russian folklore legend Baba Yaga is a delightful homage to Miyazaki, Del Toro and The Exorcist’s spider-walk sequence. A glimpse of London transformed into a demon-festooned hellscape is a reminder Marshall directed some of Game of Thrones’ finest episodes.
When monsters climactically come to town, we witness what Del Toro may conjure if he ever adapts Lovecraft.
Oh, and there’s an anti-Brexit joke to savour…
Not perfect, but we’ll take this imaginative, visceral, messy superhero caper over the polished blockbuster blandness clogging up multiplexes.
The defense rests…