Nostalgia is an odd thing. We live in a world where reboots are so common as to be expected by audiences for almost all genre fare. Yet it is also a pop culture landscape dominated by nostalgia, with much of the product sold to us falling into the category of sequel, prequel, ‘rebootquell’ (think Jurassic World), or remake. As such, 11 years on from Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army, it is to be expected that the character of Hellboy would live again, sometime soon, in a fresh iteration.
It has been noticeable in the build-up to release of this new version that audiences remain disappointed that they never got a third outing with Ron Perlman in the lead, particularly given there were hanging character threads yet to be addressed in that continuity. We seem to have a society of consumers bred to expect reboots, in fact, if box office trends can be trusted, almost to be demanding them; yet they are often in fear of any change whatsoever. This leaves makers of work such as 2019’s Hellboy immediately struggling for a decision on tone. Do they go for a fresh approach, or comfort audiences with the familiar?
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Into this comes director Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers, The Descent) to helm the new take, starring Stranger Things‘ David Harbour as the titular hero, with Ian McShane replacing the late Sir John Hurt as Trevor Bruttenholm, our lead’s father figure, and founder of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defence (BPRD). Some well-liked characters from the 2000’s series, such as Abe Sapien and Liz Sherman are missing in action this time.
The film starts with an early-sixth century prologue in which the Blood Queen, Nimue (Milla Jovovich) is prevented, by King Arthur and the Wizard Merlin, from continuing to spread a deadly plague across Britain. As she is dismembered and her still-living remains locked in disparate locations across the country, her blood is absorbed by a dead tree. If the parts of her are ever rejoined, and the blood reunited with the body, she will rise again to unleash plague and destroy humanity, so that monsters can reign.
In the present day, revenge is being sought against Hellboy (David Harbour), by Gruagach (Stephen Graham), a Pig-Man creature beaten by him in 1992, when Hellboy prevented a kidnap plot (by fairies) against a young baby named Alice. Grauagach will now seek to resurrect Nimue, whilst Hellboy will team up with the now-adult Alice (Sasha Lane), who retains mystical abilities from that childhood event. With them Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim, as a man with a secret), an agent paired with Hellboy by Bruttenholm. In UK-centric plot, Hellboy will learn of his true destiny, and try to prevent Nimue from unleashing Hell on Earth.
The tone of Hellboy 2019 is noticeably different from the previous incarnation, or perhaps it’s better to say tones, as this is inconsistent in feel. Generally, it’s colder, with little of the familial warmth of the 2004 film. The colour palette is more muted, and – with the exception of the Osiris Club in London – sets less rich, and more functional. Scenes flip between foreboding, violent, flippant, gory, juvenile – there is never a consistent commitment to an approach.
Harbour is very similar in performance to Ron Perlman. The make-up contours his face to the exaggerated proportions of the comic book, in a way the older films did not, and his eyes are a burning yellow – something never built into the Perlman design. These are all mere details though. The only real difference is Harbour is a younger man, therefore a little more limber for certain action scenes – a fight with three giants being something it’s hard to imagine Perlman pulling off as athletically. In general, he’s a good fit.
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Hellboy suffers from weak dialogue, with quips rarely landing – this Hellboy is very quippy – and discussions between characters sound like something out of a direct-to-video 1990s actioner. This is exacerbated by a total lack of chemistry between any of those characters. It often feels like none of the actors even met before action was called for the first time.
Pacing is erratic. The film races through a reasonably effective first act or so, as we get Nimue’s story, a set piece at a wrestling arena in Tijuana, a look at the BPRD (now in the mountains of Colorado), a visit to London, complete with retelling of the origin of Hellboy (similar to the 2004 version), and a trap laid for him that will set-up the main plot. This is pacey, action-filled storytelling, marred only slightly by terrible dialogue. From there it slows to glacial, with what felt like the denouement of a fairly long film ending up as merely 70 minutes in, with a good deal of story still to tell.
In summary, the 2019 Hellboy is a bit of a mess. The budget feels insufficient, with effects looking cheap. All emotional and character work fails to land. Action lurches between acceptable and 2000’s style shakycam (particularly in the Mexico sequence) that really hasn’t dated well. Characters lack for any interpersonal chemistry, and are given dialogue that feels like it was written by teenagers. The film’s not as gory as some have made out, but at points it does feel that the artistic decisions are being made by people who need to grow up a little.
It’s only in the final moments of the film – effectively an epilogue – that we see our team coalesce into a fun unit, leading an action set-piece that could and should have been the vibe of the whole film. This sequence teases a familiar character, and a sequel that the performance of this film likely won’t warrant. David Harbour deserved better than this, as he’s a fine replacement for Ron Perlman. Everything else here bears witness to the reports of a troubled production, stories of which are now emerging. This will get no sequel, and it will live in the shadow of del Toro, as a curious, underfunded, under-cooked misfire.