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Hellboy (2019)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/21/19 17:57:46

"Without sequels, just an inferior reboot."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

It's kind of a shame that this relaunch of "Hellboy" didn't light up the box office, not because it's a particularly good movie which deserves success - it isn't - but because the chance of sequels and spin-offs was the best argument for starting fresh rather than having Guillermo del Toro direct another one to complete his trilogy. There's just enough potential here that you could see it getting refined into something better with another bite at the apple, but now it can't help but be seen as anything other than a misguided disappointment.

Hellboy (David Harbour), as you may recall from the previous films or original comics, is a demon summoned by the Nazis during the waning days of World War II, although they did not expect to conjure an infant or have the ritual interrupted by the Allies. Professor Broom (Ian McShane) raises the red-skinned boy as his son, the pair spending their whole lives since investigating and containing otherworldly threats for the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. Their latest case: Assisting their counterparts in the UK with a trio of resurrected giants, although this leads them to a greater danger: Resurrected 5th-Century witch Nimue (Milla Jovovich), whose attempt to spread a plague that would kill all human was only thwarted by King Arthur (Mark Stanley) and Merlin (Brian Gleeson) themselves.

Her new plan involves Hellboy himself, which isn't the greatest sign; Mike Mignola's BPRD and Hellboy comics tend to be strongest when he's digging into folklore or focusing on the characters' personalities; the stories built around his original mythology, like this one, tend to be the weakest. It's exacerbated by Andrew Cosby's script, which depends greatly on Hellboy's place in the world and relationship with his father, without the film doing much to establish these things, as well as a lot of talk about destiny and sudden shifts of attitude that don't necessarily follow from what the audience sees within the film. The villains want to do bad things, but the only one that actually seems to have any weight to him is pig-headed comic-relief henchman Gruagach (voice of Stephen Graham), seemingly presuming that the audience is bringing that baseline emotional investment in with them, presumably from del Toro's films or the comics.

Not that emotional heft is necessarily what the filmmakers are going for much of the time; the film starts poking at the fourth wall during the opening narration the special effects teams do a fair job of capturing the grotesquerie of Mignola's monsters but only rarely does the moody sense of a world filled with dark corners that shelter eldritch terrors come through. Instead, there's director Neil Marshall's enthusiastic blood-and-guts action, and it's a welcome return to the big screen for a guy who, aside from a segment in an anthology film, has mostly been working in television since 2010's Centurion. The enthusiastic gore and larger-than-life action is unmistakably his, and it's a welcome return - he makes some of the more cartoonish bits have impact, and has a knack for keeping some of the more fast-moving, frantic bits of action just clear enough to follow. The flip side, unfortunately, is a sort of callousness that can make the film feel like he's not doing anything but appealing to the gorehounds - there's a lot of time for people being ripped apart but not much for people reacting to it with much but one-liners, deadening the actual horror of the moment and making the film feel more juvenile than its predecessors despite the enthusiastic R rating.

The film's potentially greatest asset is its cast, with David Harbour doing a fine-enough job stepping into Ron Perlman's shoes; his Hellboy is an entertainingly petulant demon, and he plays well off Sasha Lane and Daniel Dae Kim as a pair of supernaturally-gifted partners. Neither he nor Ian McShane feels particularly like someone who has been around for 75 to 100 years; perhaps that's just a matter of it not being a big part of the story, though the characterization of Hellboy as a sort of septuagenarian teenager feels odd whenever it comes up. McShane has the unfortunate task of replacing John Hurt, and just can't manage it despite giving a perfectly fine Ian McShane performance, while Milla Jovovich does her best to wring some sort of personality for Nimue out next to nothing, though Thomas Haden Church takes one or two scenes and makes one mourn the Lobster Johnson spinoff that will probably never happen.

Things like a potential Lobster Johnson movie are likely no small part of why Mignola and the producers opted to start anew rather than provide closure to a couple movies from a decade ago; his BPRD comics could have given Lionsgate a franchise to rival the Marvel Universe had audiences gone for it, with three pre/mid/post-credit zingers demonstrating that ambition. Unfortunately, this movie just isn't good enough to create an appetite for that sort of offering, and without them, this feels more like an inferior copy than an exciting new beginning.

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