For as long as history has been written, good and evil have fought for dominance over the world, the forces who would build and heal and save against those who would burn and maim and kill. The faces and the names may change but the story repeats, from the Old Testament to Pendle Hill in Lancashire in 517AD when King Arthur and Merlin faced down the witch Nimue, the Blood Queen, and beyond into the twenty-first century.
Born in a storm on a remote Scottish island to Nazi occultists in the Second World War, Hellboy is back, globehopping like James Bond from Mexico to tangle with a luchador vampire to the English countryside to join the Osiris Club on a horseback hunt for giants to the strange dreamworld of tangled folklore where Baba Yaga seeks harsh payment for the slim favours she offers.
Directed by Dog Soldiers’ Neil Marshall from a script by Andrew Crosby based on Mike Mignola’s popular comic adventures of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense and its operatives, Hellboy is in some ways a soft reboot of the film series directed by Guillermo del Toro starring Ron Perlman in the title role, the only significant change being the marginal rise in certification required by the increased levels of violence and colourful language.
Perlman’s successor, Stranger Things’ David Harbour, jumps into the role with two cloven hooves, never attempting to make his portrayal distinct which makes this film feel cohesive with what has gone before, though it is neither sequel nor a continuation, American Gods‘ Ian McShane having taken over the role of Hellboy’s adopted “father” Trevor Bruttenholm, a character who died in the original film in 2004 when played by John Hurt.
Wisely the established supporting ensemble of the Del Toro films is not revisited, Hellboy’s companions instead being B.P.R.D. agent Ben Daimio and psychic Alice Monaghan (Hawaii Five-0‘s Daniel Dae Kim and Daniel Isn’t Real‘s Sasha Lane), faced with preventing the reassembly of the dismembered Nimue, Resident Evil‘s Milla Jovovich giving a performance more subtle and complex as a villain than in her frequent heroic action leads.
As direct and uncompromising as Hellboy himself, from the kinetic opening scenes through its breathless two hour runtime the film barely pauses long enough to allow the audience to consider how generic the plotting and twists are, occult and action movie tropes thrown in a blender on high speed, and as silly and messy as it becomes Marshall ensures his precarious house of cards is also a lot of fun.
Never overshadowed by the heavy makeup, Harbour’s matter-of-fact handling of the character keeping events as grounded and real as a supernatural horror film can be, for the bulk of the film many of the creatures are created through prosthetics rather than digital post-production, and nor are the sets as wearingly overdesigned as Del Toro’s films often are, the exception being Baba Yaga’s chicken-legged hut which has grown beyond its humble folk tale origins.
Hellboy always a conflicted character of two worlds, born of evil but raised to fight for good, aspects of his latest outing have been considered before, but certainly the character has not been watered down or softened and while this is a welcome and overdue return in safe hands nor does it move in a substantially new direction despite the decade which has passed since The Golden Army were defeated.
Hellboy is currently on general release and also screening in IMAX