The first two Hellboy movies were moderate hits, popular with fans, and did decently at the box office. While they were set up nicely as a trilogy, there was a bit of disagreement between Mike Mignola, the creator and owner of Hellboy, and Guillermo del Toro, the director of those first two films. Mignola and Andrew Cosby had written a script for a third Hellboy movie, which they wanted del Toro to be a producer on. But del Toro (a) wanted to direct and (b) wanted to direct his script for the third film.
Ron Perlman was only interested in reprising the role with del Toro as the director, so the title role was recast and the whole thing was rebooted.
While Mignola, Cosby, sometime Mignola collaborator Christopher Golden, and Aron Eli Coleite had all worked on drafts of the script, Cosby wound up with sole screenwriter credit. The script was based on a story arc that went across four miniseries in the comics, the six-issue Darkness Calls, the eight-issue The Wild Hunt, the three-issue The Storm, and the three-issue The Fury. These comics, written by Mignola with art by Duncan Fegredo, were published by Dark Horse between 2007 and 2010, and collected into a single omnibus in 2018 prosaically entitled Hellboy Omnibus Volume 3: The Wild Hunt.
The original comics story—which was mostly written after the del Toro films—was a mixture of several different mythologies, incorporating Russian, Christian, British, Egyptian, Norse, and Irish myths into a delightful kitbash of supernatural creatures, wizards, demons, zombies, and gods. The movie simplifies things tremendously, focusing near-exclusively on the Arthurian elements of the original.
With Perlman’s departure, and with the movie not really tying into the del Toro films, everyone was re-cast, starting with David Harbour (last seen in this rewatch in Suicide Squad) in the title role, Milla Jovovich as Nimue, Ian McShane as Trevor Bruttenholm, Sasha Lane as Alice, Stephen Graham as the voice of Grugach, and Daniel Dae Kim as Ben Daimio.
The casting of Daimio was one of many bits of controversy surrounding the film—beyond the general malaise toward yet another flipping reboot, which seemed unnecessary to many, and (unconfirmed) reports of disharmony on the set. Daimio is a Japanese-American character, but Ed Skrein was originally cast in the role. Skrein himself, to his credit, pulled out of the role once he learned of the comics character his part was based on, and the Korean-American Kim took his place.
The movie was a box-office flop, not even making back its production budget. A sequel seems unlikely, which is too bad, as there are plenty of other Hellboy comics stories that would make good movies.
“I thought we were supposed to be fighting monsters, not working with them”
Written by Andrew Cosby
Directed by Neil Marshall
Produced by Lawrence Gordon, Lloyd Levin, Mike Richardson, Philip Westgren, Carl Hampe, Matt O’Toole, Les Weldon, and Yariv Lerner
Original release date: April 9, 2019
Professor Trevor Bruttenholm tells us in voiceover about Vivienne Nimue, a sixth-century sorcerer who was opposed by King Arthur (“yes, that King Arthur”) and Merlin, and stopped Nimue from infesting the land with plague. They were aided by a member of Nimue’s own coven. Arthur used Excalibur to rend Nimue limb from limb. However, her body would reassemble itself given a chance, so the pieces of Nimue were placed in iron boxes and scattered to the nine winds.
In present-day Tijuana, Hellboy has been sent to retrieve a B.P.R.D. agent who was chasing down some vampires. He finds the agent, Esteban Ruiz, working as a luchador in the ring, and he challenges Hellboy to a match. Hellboy just wants to bring him home, but it turns out that under the luchador costume, he’s been turned. Hellboy accidentally kills the vampire, but before he dies, Ruiz says that Hellboy will bring about the end of the world. He also calls him Anung un Rama.
Hellboy gets drunk in Tijuana until Bruttenholm brings him back to B.P.R.D. HQ in Colorado, sobering him up and sending him to England to assist the Osiris Club—with whom Bruttenholm has worked in the past—with hunting down some giants.
When he arrives in England, the Osiris Club’s seer, Lady Hatton, reveals the truth behind Hellboy’s origin. Bruttenholm wasn’t just at the Scottish island where Nazis summoned Hellboy to observe—he was there to kill him. But Bruttenholm disobeyed orders and took Hellboy in instead.
The next day, the Osiris Club goes on their hunt—but they’re not just hunting giants, they’re also hunting Hellboy, and they ambush him. Then the giants ambush them. Hellboy winds up beating the giants himself, but collapses from exhaustion. He’s rescued by a woman named Alice, a medium whom he rescued from the fae as a girl. The fae had taken her and replaced her with a changeling. Hellboy got rid of the changeling and rescued Alice.
An M11 team—the British counterpart to the B.P.R.D.—extracts Hellboy from Alice’s house and they’re both taken to M11 HQ, where Bruttenholm is also waiting. Hellboy and Bruttenholm have words, but there’s a bigger issue: someone is trying to resurrect Nimue.
That someone is the Grugach, the very changeling who had attempted to replace Alice. On the advice of Baba Yaga—who has her own grudge against Hellboy—he resurrects Nimue. We see him slaughtering an abbey full of monks to get at one piece of her.
Hellboy, Paul Daimio of M11, and Alice are sent to the Osiris Club to defend it, but they’re too late—Grugach has already gotten the piece of Nimue they had. They find this out from Lady Hatton, who’s dead, but Alice is able to channel her spirit.
Baba Yaga transports Hellboy to her realm to offer him intelligence on Grugach and Nimue in exchange for his eye—Hellboy shot out one of her eyes, so it’s only fair. Hellboy agrees, but refuses to give her the eye until after the mission, pointing out that they never agreed on a specific timeframe. In retaliation, Yaga curses Hellboy to lose someone he loves. That will probably be important later.
Alice joins Daimio and Hellboy to Nimue’s castle. Daimio reveals that his facial scars came from an encounter with demonic jaguars.
They arrive just in time for Nimue to fully resurrect herself and also kill all save one of the witches who betrayed her. Hellboy fights her, but she poisons Alice, and retreats. The one witch Nimue spared, Ganeida, leads Hellboy to Merlin’s crypt. Merlin is able to cure Alice, and he also brings Excalibur forth. It turns out that, while Hellboy’s father was a demon, his mother was a descendant of King Arthur. Which means he’s worthy to wield Excalibur, which is the only weapon that can stop Nimue.
However, as soon as he touches the sword, Hellboy gets a vision of himself wielding the sword and taking over the world, leading a demonic horde. He therefore refuses to wield it, which annoys Merlin, who disintegrates, his magic spent.
Nimue attacks M11 and kidnaps Bruttenholm. Hellboy, Alice, and Daimio go after Nimue and Grugach. Daimio, it turns out, was cursed by the jaguar creatures and can now turn into one. They make short work of Grugach, but Nimue kills Bruttenholm in order to bring forth the hordes of hell, which run amuck in England. She then tempts Hellboy with Excalibur and with ruling by her side. Furious at losing his father, Hellboy grabs the sword, which lights on fire, makes his horns grow back, gives him a crown of flames, and also ties his hair in a man-bun, all of them signs of evil. (Especially the man-bun. Shudder.)
Alice channels Bruttenholm who convinces Hellboy not to give in, and Hellboy agrees and cuts Nimue’s head off. This reverses her spell, and all the hordes of hell go back from whence they came. Before the ground beneath them closes back up, Hellboy tosses Nimue’s head into hell.
Six months later, Hellboy, Alice, and Daimio raid a lab in Siberia, where they find a tank containing Abe Sapien…
We also see Hellboy drunk at Bruttenholm’s grave, where he’s given a pep talk by the ghost of Lobster Johnson, the World War II hero who was there when Hellboy came to Earth, and Baba Yaga making a deal with Koschei the Deathless (it’s not specified as him, but she promises to let him finally die, which is what Yaga promised Koschei in the comics).
“Haven’t we got to be saving the world or something?”
It’s amazing how terrible this movie is.
No, really, it’s horrible. And it’s particularly mind-boggling that a script that came at least partly from people intimately involved with making comics—creator Mike Mignola; Andrew Cosby, the co-founder of BOOM! Studios; Christopher Golden, who’s written Hellboy in comics and prose—could so thoroughly botch it.
Especially given the original comics story, which is rather good. Mignola does a superb job of mixing and matching legends from different nations into a coherent narrative, one that seamlessly blends Russian folklore, Christian mythology, Arthurian legend, and more.
I can understand why the movie would boil it down to just the Arthurian stuff, especially since Nimue is the main bad guy, but the issue here isn’t so much that they boiled it down, it’s that they didn’t boil it down enough. Baba Yaga serves precisely zero function in this movie, and she’s the only part of it that isn’t related to Arthurian stuff. She’s there purely to set up the next movie with the post-credits scene, but she doesn’t add anything of value to this movie.
Some of the changes from the comic make sense. The original story took place after Hellboy had quit the B.P.R.D., and in those stories, Mignola has had an unfortunate tendency to have Hellboy sort of wander into situations via random encounters with strange characters who provide plot-important exposition for no obvious reason. We’re spared that, at least, though we do get the added not-a-bonus of Lady Hatton giving Hellboy’s origin once again. But if the Osiris Club’s plan was to betray Hellboy and kill him, why bother sharing the full secret of his origin? What point does it serve, beyond creating artificial conflict between Hellboy and Bruttenholm?
The acting is hit and miss. Ian McShane is superlative, as always, Stephen Graham is having a grand old time as Grugach, and Sasha Lane does a fine job with Alice. However, Milla Jovovich and Daniel Dae Kim both are done in by the silly accents they put on, neither of which are particularly good, and both of which spoil their acting work something fierce. David Harbour apparently thinks that shouting is the same as acting, because all he does in this movie is shout. A lot. Very loudly. To no good effect. Mind you, I love Harbour in pretty much everything else I’ve seen him in, he’s a wonderful actor, but he turns in about half a two-dimensional performance here.
This movie is just a mess. The script is lifeless—Hellboy’s quips come across as constructed and there for the sake of one-liners, not actually organic the way Ron Perlman’s were in the del Toro films—the pacing is languid, the action is nothing special. Neil Marshall does the best he can to re-create Mignola’s work on the screen (well, Mignola’s and Duncan Fegredo, who did the art for the stories these are based on), but it just comes across as muddy, without the style that del Toro brought to the proceedings in the previous decade. Plus those acting issues I mentioned are at least partly his fault, especially given that the actors in question have all done better work elsewhere…
We’re off next week for the holidays, but we’ll be back on the third of January 2020 with Thor and Valkyrie—er, I mean, Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson in Men in Black International.
Keith R.A. DeCandido wishes everyone a wonderful holiday and a joyous new year.