The first thing we see in Hellboy is a rotting corpse, its dangling eye being chewed on by a crow. This pre-credits prologue, setting up the Arthurian tale that follows, describes an era “known as the Dark Ages, and for fucking good reason”, as Ian McShane’s dry voiceover puts it. Then, Milla Jovovich is decapitated. More gore, more cursing, more darkness: from these opening minutes, we gather that the new Hellboy promises to be a gritty, witty, give-no-shits take on Mike Mignola’s demon detective. Sadly, it’s a promise that’s not quite delivered.
Notably, though, the fault is not at Hellboy’s own giant feet. Ever since word got out that Guillermo del Toro would not be returning to the series he so lovingly carved two films from, the received wisdom was that nobody could replace Ron Perlman in the title role — an inspired piece of casting, and a symbiosis between actor and character that made anyone else in the role unthinkable. But Stranger Things’ David Harbour makes it thinkable. His take on Red is a little chunkier, a little hairier, a slightly darker hue of red, his horns slightly more roughly filed. He is a touch taller than Perlman, and just as gravelly voiced — but crucially he gets the stoic, hard-drinkin’, no-fussin’ everyman nuances of the character, undercutting the high fantasy surrounding him with a well-placed grimace.
David Harbour is brilliant, everyone around him less so.
Harbour is brilliant. Everyone around him: less so. As Hellboy’s adoptive father Trevor Bruttenholm, McShane has the chops and presence to step into John Hurt’s shoes but you sense at this stage he can do these tough-talking father figures in his sleep. Elsewhere, we encounter some alarmingly bad English accents, of the kind to make Dick Van Dyke blush; and in Jovovich’s Blood Queen Nimue, a none-more-generic villain exacting ancient revenge without much credible motive or character depth.
The script, which incorporates multiple comic book strands, feels cobbled together, and while that allows for the occasional fun set-piece (Hellboy goes hunting for giants!), it’s an unencumbered mess, flitting between locations and characters without pause or prudence. And the clear desperation for an R rating seems like thoughtless, empty blood-lust. Gallons of computer-generated claret are spilled; rarely does it make an impact.
There are hints of what could have been. Like the allegories of X-Men, Nimue appeals to Hellboy’s sense of otherness, and he grapples a little with what it means to be both human and a literal demon from hell. But these are ideas only given the faintest consideration. Then more blood is splattered at the screen. The new direction for the franchise — a dark, grown-up take on a dark, grown-up character — makes complete sense. But something got lost along the way.