By Preston Wilder
Hellboy (David Harbour) is red, “like a baboon’s arse” – or more pertinently blood-red, this new reboot of the comic-book character (set in Britain, and directed by a Brit) featuring a lot more ultra-violence than its predecessors. Why a reboot? Maybe the first two Hellboys weren’t as faithful to the comic, though in fact its creator Mike Mignola had a producer’s credit on those like he does on this one. More likely it’s because Hellboy II: The Golden Army came out way back in 2008, the same year Marvel launched its Avengers masterplan with the game-changing Iron Man. Not that Hellboy is a superhero movie per se – but the MCU has transformed the market for comic-book fantasy and indeed the film ends on the promise of a Hellboy-led franchise, along the lines of a splatter Avengers or Justice League. There’s even an Aquaman.
Splatter is the operative word here, paired with cynical humour – culminating in what may be the year’s best/worst pun when HB, in his world-weary tone, scotches a villain’s pleas with the unarguable “Lady, quit while you’re a-head”. The lady is indeed a (severed) head at that point, one of many body parts that go missing or get cleaved in half; the film goes out of its way for an ‘18’ rating, with gratuitous scenes of demons pulverising innocent bystanders and a tangent where grotesque, one-eyed witch Baba Yaga serves Hellboy some kind of stew in tomato sauce. “Is it a child?” he asks, gingerly stirring the pot. “Just a human child.” Oh, a human child, yummy.
The potent violence comes with a fairly potent moral dilemma. Hellboy is a monster, “a devil spawn and a Nazi” as he says in exasperation (he’s exaggerating slightly; he’s not a Nazi), ugly and horned and the “Beast of the Apocalypse”, chosen to bring about the end of the world. That, at least, is his destiny – but will he follow it, becoming the consort of blood-queen Nimue (Milla Jovovich) who’s bent on revenge, or will he forge his own path, protecting the world of humans? We all know the answer, of course (the film admits as much), but it’s still quite a pressing question because HB isn’t a natural hero; he’s more like The Hulk, a seething mass of ill-will and resentment who’s likely to go either way. “The monster inside him,” we’re told, “cannot be denied.”
Hellboy may be undone by bad timing. Comic-book movies are becoming increasingly kid-friendly (see last week’s loveable Shazam!) whereas this, with its edgy humour and excessive gore, is more of a throwback to the laddish British films of the 90s and early 00s. (The general tone recalls Kingsman, a franchise helmed by the producer of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.) Even the narrator is a bit in-your-face, informing us, as the film opens, that we find ourselves in the 5th century, “known as the Dark Ages – and for good f**kin’ reason!”. (The opening shot shows a crow plucking out a corpse’s eyeball.) I don’t pretend to know what the mass audience wants – but it does feel like pop-culture at the moment is becoming more unthreatening and ‘responsible’, bowing both to the various sensitivities of a global market and social-justice calls for more diversity (hence Black Panther, Captain Marvel, etc). This gleefully nasty movie is not ‘responsible’.
Is it fun, though? To be honest, it has its moments. There’s a killer warthog with a Scouse accent, a perky English girl-psychic (played by an American, delightful Sasha Lane from American Honey, in a nice reversal of the usual transatlantic exchange) and Ian McShane as HB’s father/mentor, setting up his missions at the Paranormal Bureau with the actor’s usual dry sense of humour. (Go to this place, they have “a giant problem”. “What is it?” “Giants.”) The script has some funny lines, plus the perfect retort to someone who claims that such-and-such a thing is their ‘line in the sand’ (I won’t spoil it, but I do plan to use it someday) – and it even takes a fair stab at expressing Hellboy’s self-loathing and dissatisfaction. Why, after all, should the world of humans use the big red freak as a weapon? Wouldn’t they do better to learn to live with monsters, instead of always waging war on them? He has a point.
Hellboy may have started out in comics – but Marvel, in the end, isn’t such a useful reference point for this rebooted Hellboy. If it does spawn a franchise it’ll surely be more along the lines of Underworld or even John Wick (the Mexican scenes have the same hot, saturated look as the trailer for John Wick 3), red-meat action with a high body count and a licence to go nuts as needed. It’s like Sasha Lane says to the Asian guy, just before channelling spirits which shoot out of her mouth like enormous serpents: you might want to leave the room, “this kind of thing isn’t pretty”. “And miss all the fun?” he replies. Your mileage may vary.
DIRECTED BY Neil Marshall
STARRING David Harbour, Milla Jovovich, Ian McShane
COMIC BOOK ACTION
US 2019 120 mins