Marshall's Hellboy for true fans only
I don’t know how to say this without it sounding condescending, but if you don’t read Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, then you simply won’t get Neil Marshall’s new version of the demonic superhero’s adventures. While you have to admire the filmmaker’s adherence to the source material (with Mignola as one of the producers he may have little leeway) it’s an approach where you run the risk of alienating the uninitiated. With an opening box office take of $12 million and a 15% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it would appear that this is exactly what’s happened, with those going in blind coming out dazed, confused and perhaps a bit angry.
A brief Hellboy primer is probably in order – in the waning days of World War II, a desperate Adolf Hitler acts upon his notion that supernatural forces may be called upon to help his cause. He dispatches specialists in the occult, among them a resurrected Rasputin (don’t ask…it’s a looong story) to England to perform a rite that will give rise to a demon they hope will assist them in resurrecting the Third Reich. Fortunately, U.S. forces ambush them and take control of what’s been brought forth – an infant demon that one Professor Broom takes under his wing. Naming him Hellboy, he raises and nurtures him, training him to be a paranormal investigator combating supernatural enemies. While this is all well and good, the erstwhile hero wrestles with his destiny, as it’s been prophesized his actions will bring about the end of the world.
This was covered in Guillermo del Toro’s 2004 original and is briefly and efficiently retold here as well. Afterwards, the titular character sets out to combat Nimue (Milla Javovich), a resurrected witch bent on remaking the world so that monsters can run riot, but not before he combats three giants and finds out he’s a descendent of King Arthur. Oh, and there’s a man-sized, talking boar intent on being turned back to human form. It’s that kind of movie.
Marshall keeps things at 11 throughout, covering a great deal of story (three different Hellboy stories are adapted here) at a breakneck pace, bombarding the audience with one elaborate visual after another (the production values are top-notch), drenching them with the sort of graphic violence that’s so extreme it can only be seen as comical.
Amidst all of this, the relationship between Broom (Ian McShane) and Hellboy (Stranger Things’ David Harbour) is the linchpin that holds it all together as their affectionate bickering gives the film some genuine laughs and a bit of heart. McShane could read the phone book and be compelling, and his sense of gravity, coupled with his tongue planted firmly in cheek, sets and helps maintain the sardonic tone necessary to make this work. Harbour, while lacking the physical presence of previous Hellboy, Ron Perlman, has a better handle on the character’s comic side, which helps keep things light as supernatural mayhem swirls about him.
This will not be everybody’s cup of tea, while the glut of superhero films will likely prevent viewers from taking a chance on a niche character like Big Red. Yet, Marshall must be commended for making a Hellboy not for the masses, but for the devoted fan base, a move that will surely please them but make it highly unlikely that the character will appear on the big screen again anytime soon.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.