You don’t have to like one cinematic version of Hellboy over the other. I wildly adore the two previous films directed by Guillermo del Toro. They are inventive, stylish, beautiful creations of fantasy art and have richly drawn characters torn between their brutal nature and their desire to do good in the world. And then there’s director Neil Marshall’s take on the character and the world of Hellboy from the graphic novels by Mike Mignola, released in theaters this week. Both are dark (literally and tonally), gritty, nasty, bloody, twisted, and utterly subversive. In many ways, his Hellboy takes more risks than the Del Toro movies, but said risks don’t always pay off.
Marshall is a master of making sense out of chaotic action sequences (as he did in Doomsday, Centurion and his masterpiece, The Descent, as well as key, action-heavy episodes of “Game of Thrones”). What he brings to his version of Hellboy is a sense of both genuine physical pain and a sick sense of playfulness. When you open your film with a villainous sorceress known as the Blood Queen (Milla Jovovich) having her head lopped off by none other than King Arthur and her still-living body parts hidden at the far reaches of Great Britain, you know you’re not playing in a run-of-the-mill superhero sandbox.
Rather than rehash Hellboy’s origin story in a conventional way, Marshall (working from a screenplay by Andrew Cosby) weaves it into the fabric of the main story by showing us the connection between the demon spawn’s birth and the Blood Queen’s rise (and a few other perhaps unnecessary plot points). Ian McShane provides a strong guiding force (and narrative voice) to the film as Hellboy’s father figure Professor Broom. In this version of Hellboy’s story, he’s mostly a loner, taking cues from Broom and their Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, which works to defend against the dangers of occult-based phenomena. But as the film progresses, Hellboy (a ragged, angsty performance by David Harbour) picks up a few partners, including Major Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim), who both hates monsters and can’t avoid them; and Alice Monaghan (the always-fun Sasha Lane), a psychic who Hellboy has known since she was a baby and of whom he’s very protective.
As a pig-faced monster named Gruagach (voiced by Stephen Graham) roams the land looking for the Blood Queen’s pieces in hope of reassembling her, Hellboy and his team attempt to stop him, since it may mean the end of the world if they don’t. All the while, Hellboy discovers long-hidden truths about his past, about why Broom chose to raise rather than destroy him, and how connected he is to the evil that threatens to cause the end of days. The story feels the most comic-book-like of any of the Hellboy movies, which doesn’t make it better or worse, just different in terms of its intentions and atmosphere. It’s messy, sometimes ugly and often ridiculous about how it throws hideous creatures at our heroes to see how they deal with them. As a monster movie, the film is fantastic; as a comedy, it’s hit and miss; and as an action experience, I thought it worked, as long as you don’t mind getting a little blood on your shoes.
There are some bizarre and mostly enjoyable turns by the supporting cast, including Thomas Haden Church, Sophie Okonedo and Alistair Petrie, and I enjoyed the way nearly every character in the film looks at Hellboy with suspicion—they love that he’s on their side, but they also half expect him to turn against them at any moment. It makes it impossible for anyone to trust anyone. Admittedly, I wasn’t as emotionally moved by certain moments that were clearly meant to inspire sorrow and a sense of loss. Hellboy establishes himself so definitively as someone who doesn’t need others that when he experiences a loss, it’s tough to feel something on his behalf. But that didn’t stop me entirely from engaging with him as a character struggling with identity and his very nature. If this is a character that means something to you as a fan of the graphic novels, you might genuinely appreciate what Marshall and company are doing with Hellboy; if you are loyal to the Del Toro films, you may be in for a rude and gory awakening. Good luck with that.
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