During ” The Forever Warriors: Story and Characters”, part one of the three-part documentary “Tales of the Wild Hunt: Hellboy Reborn,” lead actor David Harbour acknowledges that audiences are weary of anything seeming like a reboot or a remake. In his experience from theater, he’s seen various productions with different actors in the roles, each one offering something new. This is the proper mindset to approach the Neil Marshall-directed, Andrew Cosby-written Hellboy for which Harbour bears the mantle of the titular reluctant hero. So many audiences cling to the films they know, in this case the Guillermo del Toro 2004 and 2008 films, that anything new fights an uphill battle before production begins. It becomes less about what the new story offers and more about how it compares against what came before. It may be a natural inclination, but it’s also unfair to the new property. While Marshall’s Hellboy isn’t a perfect film, it’s also not the turgid, waste that’s been suggested. Truly, what’s most frustrating about Hellboy is how, in its unevenness, it’s easy to see the good parts overtaken by poor CG and an unnecessarily complicated plot.
Hellboy (Harbour) is a man of two worlds. He’s the adopted son of Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (B.R.P.D.) director Professor Trevor “Broom” Bruttenhold (Ian McShane), who raised him to be a soldier in the secret war to protect humanity from supernatural attacks. He’s also a demon himself, hidden from the world he risks his life to safeguard. When an ancient threat emerges in the form of a powerful witch known as Nimue, the Blood Queen (Milla Jovovich), Hellboy must gather old friends (medium Alice portrayed by Sasha Lane) and forge new alliances (a disgruntled major portrayed by Daniel Dae Kim) in order to prevent her wraith from swallowing the world whole.
FYI: As a home release recommendation, some spoiler content may be discussed. Continue at your own risk.
As mentioned before, it’s easy to pick apart a film if you’re already set against it. In truth, there’re a lot of interesting pieces within Hellboy that make it fun. For one, David Harbour makes Hellboy his own, which is tough considering the actor previously in the role, but much like McShane putting his own stamp on the Professor after John Hurt, this version of Hellboy is unique to Harbour and the story being told. This story requires a Hellboy who’s in a darker spot, less aware of his past, and very conflicted by his role in the world. He doesn’t want to be the world destroyer everyone keeps telling him he is, but at the same time, he desires a place within the world he protects. That narrative theme runs through the whole of Hellboy and Harbour manages to impart the required pathos through layers of prosthetics and make-up. For his part, McShane is just chewing on the scenery every chance he gets. Turns out that the Professor is a part of a group granted something like immortality to help them fight evil and, you know what, being a little cantankerous and mouthy at his unknown age makes a strange kind of senses. So when the opening of the film includes the Professor cursing, it (1) makes sense of the kind of mental place the character’s in and (2) immediately sets a tone for the type of adventure audiences are in for, which, frankly, is quite a bit of fun in segments. After the opening which sets the larger threat in motion, it cuts to Hellboy fighting in a Mexican wrestling match. It’s strange, silly, and the danger reveals itself in a slow, yet satisfying way involving a neat body horror transformation. There’re quite a few moments like this and the best ones are completely executed with practical effects. This is done most impressively with the Baba Yaga, a creature with a connection to Hellboy who’s brought to life through the movements of contortionist Troy James and the voice of Emma Tate. Special character and make-up designer Joel Harlow makes the Baba Yaga terrifying with his use of make-up and applications. The achieved look combined with the performances result in one of the best creatures in the whole film (Sorry, Milla, but Nimue isn’t as interesting or as threatening). Also, for those who were troubled by the PG-13 rating of the del Toro films, the violence in the opening introductory scene and then the lucha fight takes you as close to a hard R-rating as you can get. No nudity (thankfully) but plenty of cursing (mostly from McShane) and tons of carnage.
So that speaks to the good in the film: well-acted, incredible practical effects, and the kind of violence audiences familiar with Mike Mignola’s original comic would expect. Sadly, what ruins the shine are several glaring issues. The CG, when used, is almost always noticeable and distracting. There’s a great action set piece wherein Hellboy takes on three giants at once. It should be completely awe-inducing and hilarious — Hellboy is outgunned and outnumbered — but the obvious CG removes any suspension of disbelief. What makes issues like this so frustrating is that the CG work in other areas is frequently seamless — like watching Merlin (Brain Gleeson) degrade into dust or the fiery crown above Hellboy’s head — so the breakouts ruin any traction the audience has in the film. One of the worst kept secrets due to marketing is that new ally Major Ben Daimio (Kim) possesses the ability to transform into a cat-like monster. This is a reveal saved until almost the end of the film and it becomes clear why when the transformed Daimio stands next to Hellboy in battle. Yes, CG is cheaper, but watching Hellboy battle against the practical effect-created pig monster called Gruagach (voiced by Stephen Graham and acted by Douglas Tait) is far more engaging and believable than anytime Daimio transforms into a supposedly vicious creature. In an era where audiences believe that whole people can be turned to dust at a snap of the finger, it’s incredibly disheartening to see such good ideas turned ineffectual. Additionally, there are choices made in the narrative that seem counter to the internal logic established at the start. Professor Broom raised Hellboy, cares for him, and yet doesn’t respond in any way to the attempted murder enacted upon Hellboy by his supposed friends. While that turncoat sequence does allow for some fun action, it mostly serves as a way to bring Lane’s Alice into the story and explain more of the Grugach’s backstory. Yes, this does create a tapestry of connections between the characters that works wonders in the comics, but, for film, it creates an unnecessary drag and forces the story to carry too many characters to give any real meaning to them all. This mostly hurts Nimue as her character is reduced to one operating on pure vengeance, requiring this motivation alone to be believable enough to convince Hellboy to team up with her. Sure, much of the film is about Hellboy feeling “othered,” but it never goes the lengths it needs to in that direction to earn that kind of character turn. Mignola created a rich world with complex characters, but by attempting to represent them in one film pulls down the whole.
The one thing that can’t be said about this production is that they did anything half-assed. Whether the film is enjoyable or not comes down to subjective taste, but, objectively, audiences can see how hard the cast and crew worked to bring the story to life. All of this gets confirmed in the special features. In addition to the basic Lionsgate trailers for upcoming theatrical/home releases, there’re three previsualizations for three action set pieces, as well as three deleted scenes. That’s pretty basic home release bonus fare, but the really good stuff is in the aforementioned three-part documentary “Tales of the Wild Hunt: Hellboy Reborn.” It is an expansive and rather exhaustive piece that delves into actor preparation, scene development, make-up and costume design, and the creation of several fight sequences. Normally behind the scenes content is brief, offering a few nuggets about the process before dumping into a few select scenes from the film and dropping you back in the menu. “Tales of the Wild Hunt” isn’t that at all. In one portion, costume designer Stephanie Collie discusses the choices for Nimue’s look, making it appear more like clothes than a costume. While that might seem analogous, consider how Hellboy maintains a specific look, one with a few throwbacks to del Toro’s interpretation, against Nimue’s. His is far more of a uniform against her flowing dress and silver skin. If make-up and applications are of interest, there’s even a segment focused on the Baba Yaga and how they utilized practical effects to make the discomfort on screen come to life. For those more interested in the actors’ processes, hearing how Harbour developed his own make-shift body suit to get used to the way Hellboy moves during pre-production, how McShane felt about taking over as Professor Broom from drama school classmate John Hurt (Hellboy), or the significance to Kim as an Asian American in this type of film is everything you could ever want to know about the making of the film.
Good intentions, however, aren’t enough to make a film work. At its best, Hellboy nails the essence of Mignola’s creation: a conflicted man living in a world of magic and nightmares, all clawing to destroy humanity. This allows Hellboy to examine the nature of man from someone who’s both part of yet distant from the world. That combined with a strong performance from Harbour which not only balances the humor and pathos of Hellboy, but also that makes you forget you’re looking at a man in prosthetics, provides a great deal to enjoy in the film. Heck, considering the way the ending tees up the return of an old friend, it’d be great to see Harbour, Kim, and Lane return to kick more paranormal butt. Should that happen, and Big Red gets to ride again, you can bet this writer will be ready.
4K, Blu-ray, and Digital HD Bonus Features
“Tales of the Wild Hunt: Hellboy Reborn” Three-part documentary
- The Forever Warriors: Story and Characters
- Ye Gods and Devils: Creatures and Gear
- Rise of the Blood Queen: Production
- Full Pendle Hill Opening
- Shower Scene
- Blood Queen & Gru in Parking Lot
- Giant Fight
- Gru Vs. Hellboy
- London Apocalypse
DVD Bonus Features
- Deleted Scenes
Available on digital beginning July 9th, 2019.
Available on 4K UHD Combo Pack, Blu-ray Combo Pack, and DVD July 23rd, 2019.
Final (Film) Score: 3 out of 5.