Earlier this year, a rebooted version of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy landed in theaters to deafening thud. The critical reception was harsh. The box office returns were dismal. Then the stories began leaking to the trades about the film’s troubled production, including behind the scenes fights between its star David K. Harbour and director Neil Marshall, who was also reportedly engaged in tense feuds with the film’s producers. None of us know the truth of what happened with Hellboy as when a film flops everyone tries to position themselves as the failing defenders of the film’s artistic vision. Now that Hellboy lands on Blu-ray from Lionsgate Home Entertainment, perhaps Hellboy isn’t as bad as initially thought back in April but it’s still not a particularly good movie despite Harbour’s best efforts.
One of the biggest problems facing a Hellboy reboot, no matter the star or director, is that most moviegoers aren’t familiar with Mignola’s comics but know the characters from the two films made by beloved genre master and Academy Award-winning director Guillermo Del Toro, who along with Ron Perlman left an indelible mark on the character. What the 2019 version of Hellboy does to differentiate itself from the prior on-screen incarnation of the character is lean in harder on the horror elements to get an R-rating with plenty of F-bombs and CGI blood. The issue with this approach is that the liberal use of profanity lacks wit and seems perfunctory and the rather limited budget (for a comic book blockbuster) leaves the computer generated gore as unimpressive.
The reboot dives into Mignola’s comic books for its story of Hellboy (Harbour) and his battle against the evil Blood Queen Nimway (Milla Jovovich). This unusual hero’s journey is so outlandish and chock full of brazen insanity that it’s not hard to see why audiences had a hard time connecting with the rebooted Hellboy. The film’s script by Andrew Crosby ties the hero from Hell to the legacy of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, an ambitious swing that fails to connect as intended. Our big red hero and his father figure, Professor Broom (Ian McShane), lead the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense (B.P.R.D.) against Nimway’s immense powers of evil with the help of Major Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim), whose hiding a monstrous secret, and the psychic powers of Alice Monaghan (Sasha Lane). Nimway threatens to bring Hell on Earth unless Hellboy brings his full fiery fury to stop the evil queen and deny the destiny of his origins.
Revisiting the film for the first time since theaters did give me the sense that maybe I was a bit too harsh on Hellboy for its initial release. There are some rather cool aspects to the film, even if they’re merely pieces in a movie that never works as a whole. Hellboy travelling to Tijuana to confront vampires hiding out in a Lucha Libre circuit is an audacious idea. The same is true of the secret society of giant hunters that Hellboy teams up with. Hellboy would likely work better as a movie had it tried to focus on the smaller threats from beyond that B.P.R.D. faces instead of a threat that endangers the entire world, something that has become such a cliché in superhero films of late.
The Blu-ray for the rebooted Hellboy contains a handful of deleted scenes and a rather lengthy documentary on the making of the film. Anyone who has seen making-of special features know that they’re usually rather bland – the cast and crew heap praise upon one another and hype up the vision of the film that they’re making. However, the making-of documentary on the Hellboy disc might be the most fascinating for a movie that I’m not really a fan of. It does have those hallmarks of the cast praising each other and producers praising the cast, et cetera. What’s missing is what’s most notable and that’s director Neil Marshall. For much of the hour-long documentary the director is never mentioned nor never appears. I can’t recall anything quite like it. Towards the end of the documentary a bit of lip service praise is shot the director’s way, but the limited and late praise proves to be incredibly telling of the film’s reported production issues at least from the perspective of the producers who assembled this documentary.
While I won’t count myself as a member, I’m positive that there will be a cult following for 2019’s version of Hellboy. Its violent absurdity and the charms of David K. Harbour (even under layers of red makeup and prosthetics) will endear a certain segment of the audience who’ll extol the virtues of the infamous flop for years to come. The problem Hellboy faced upon its release was the producers were overconfident in the character’s appeal to general audiences, a cautionary tale for others who think all superheroes have the same mass appeal. There won’t be a new Hellboy franchise as teased at the end of this film, but there will be a different kind of Hellboy that’ll have his dedicated cult following.
An attempt to reboot the bizarre comic character created by Mike Mignola, director Neil Marshall’s Hellboy features plenty of F-bombs and CGI gore but is trapped in a brazenly insane story that involves King Arthur and the end of the world.