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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Hellboy, Review: Unapologetic, ugly, bloody mayhem; who’s complaining?

Hellboy, Review: Unapologetic, ugly, bloody mayhem; who’s complaining?

This hell of a film, mutatis mutandis, might have come from either stable, Marvel or DC. As it happens, it owes its genesis to Dark Horse Comics graphic novels and follows on two enterprises helmed by Guillermo del Toro, in 2004 and 2008.  Del Toro was to venture into a third outing too, but that kept simmering on the back burner for a whole decade. Finally, when it saw light of day, the director’s credit read Neil Marshal, and David Harbour had replaced Ron Perlman as the eponymous character. And whatever opinion you might have of del Toro’s versions, this one is R rated, unapologetic, ugly, bloody mayhem. I can hear some of you saying, “So, who’s complaining?”

Hellboy, created by Mike Mignola, first appeared in San Diego Comic-Con Comics, 1993, and besides three adapted live-action feature films, and two straight-to-DVD animated films, as well as three video games – Asylum Seeker, The Science of Evil, and as a playable character in Injustice 2.

A Cambion (well-meaning half demon) whose real name is Anung Un Rama, Hellboy was summoned from Hell to Earth as a baby, by Nazi occultists, when Germany was on the brink of losing the Second World War, with the help of Russian sorcerer Grigori Rasputin. Nazi-hunter Professor Trevor Bruttenholm, who formed the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (B.P.R.D.), arrived just then and finished off the Nazis, choosing to adopt the Hellboy as his son. In time, Hellboy grew to be a large, red-skinned adult with a tail, horns (which he files off, leaving behind circular stumps on his forehead), cloven hooves for feet, and an oversized right hand made of stone. He has an ironic sense of humor. Hellboy works for the B.P.R.D., against dark forces, earning the title of the World's Greatest Paranormal Investigator.

Taking off in the Vth century, during the time of King Arthur, a voice over tells us about the period when monsters, demons, witches and humans co-existed, yet the power that brought Arthur and Merlin, his wizard, to their knees, was the Blood Queen Vivian Nimue. Forced to cede his supremacy, Arthur induces the Queen’s hand-maiden to betray her mistress, and as her guard falls, he cuts her up into several pieces. To ensure that nobody would be able to piece together the bony jigsaw, each piece of the dismembered body is put in a sealed box and sent to a faraway location, where only the hand of God would be able to open them.

In recent-day Mexico, Hellboy wrestles with a half-demon called Ruiz, who is Camazotz, the Mayan bat god of death, and exposes his identity by pulling off his mask. He is then escorted by BPRD agents to meet Bruttenholm, who asks him to go to England and help a sister organisation called Osiris Club in battling giants. An expedition is mounted, but, instead of slaying the giants, the Osiris members try to kill Hellboy. Based on a prophesy of the coming of a king who would "refuse his crown" but "in the end would lead his soldiers in the last battle" and be killed, in which the chosen seven will cut off his right hand and use it to "elevate themselves over all that remains." The Club saw Hellboy as their possible candidate, the prophesied king. Hellboy not only survives but manages to slay all three dragons as well.

“If your art isn't offending someone somewhere, you're not doing art right,” says Andrew Cosby, who wrote Hellboy. Hell, he might just be offending enough numbers to get favourable votes. More from the hell-maker’s mouth: “If it's too loud, you're too old!" No kidding! Considering that Hellboy was born in 1945, that would make him 74 years old. Director Neil Marshall is 48. There is no information on how old Cosby is, though he does not look like a spring chicken in any of his pictures, but all the characters in the film are full-grown adults, unless you count a new-born baby whose place is taken by a shape-shifter. And the film has an R rating. So, the film is too loud, and we are not too old. Nice try, Andrew.

Apologies made, it is time to confess a bit of guilt. Some of the battle scenes are spectacular, one scene with the hideous androgynous Russian relic kissing Hellboy, and slime flowing all over, is in rank bad taste, but it is compensated in part by the special appearance of Grigori Rasputin and Leni Riefenstahl, a reference to the British Prime Minister during the Second World War, Sir Winston Churchill. Rasputin was a mystic close to the Russian Czars, who died in 1916. He’s resurrected as a caricature in the story for the rites performed by the Nazis in 1945. Riefenstahl (full name: Helene Bertha Amalie Riefenstahl) was a German propaganda film-maker who made films about Hitler and his Nazi Socialist Party. Very much alive in 1945, she is shown filming the occult act, until a gun is pointed right into her camera lens. Leni died in 2003, aged 101. Lastly, Bruttenholm castigates Hellboy for putting up his legs on a table that has the following name inscribed on it: Sir Winston Churchill. In one scene, Bruttenholm also philospohises on the act of shaving, and the humour has an edge.  Also worth a chuckle is: Nimue tells Hellboy her plans to bring a new Eden on the earth, filled with demonic monsters. Hellboy: “Okay. I appreciate a prophecy with more relatable stakes.”  Want another comedy track? Try the monk in the monastery who has taken a vow of silence.

There is more humour that, sadly, does not work. Hellboy is asked to do research on giants by reading books, and he protests that there are too many words in the book. After the slimy creature, Baba Yaga, who slithers upside down and inside out, kisses Hellboy, he says, “Somebody get me a mint.” Confronting the Blood Queen (the film’s original title was Hellboy: Rise of the Blood Queen), he tells her they can’t strike a deal because, “I am a Capricorn and you are f…… nuts.” Arriving to pursue and destroy the demons, Hellboy gets accidentally shot at. He retorts, “Heey…I am on your side.”

There’s a psychic in the film, who is able to bring images of dead persons out of her mouth and they can talk. Her name is Alice. Now don’t miss somebody reading Alice in Wonderland. While on Alice, she had rescued and revived a battered Hellboy after his confrontation with the three giants, and is the only person he trusts. In 1959, Gruagach, a shapeshifting warrior of the Tuatha De Danann, was sent to Ireland in order to replace the kidnapped baby Alice Monaghan. The girl’s parents had an inkling of this ruse, and managed to call on Hellboy to investigate their unusual child. Hellboy exposed the changeling, using the age-old fairy bane of Cold Iron. Gruagach was forced to tell Hellboy how to get the child back from the Daoine Sidhe. Adding insult to injury, a shrinking Gruagach was released into the furnace, but made good his escape. Humiliated, he swore vengeance on Hellboy for his cruel treatment.

With huge shoes to fill, British director Neil Marshall (The Descent, Doomsday, Centurion) takes on the mantle of Guillermo del Toro, and goes plunges right away into top gear. Though he writes his own films, as a rule, this time he has a comic specialist on the job. In an attempt to outdo the monsters and the destruction, he gives a free reign to the CGI team. Demons are available in all shapes and sizes. When it comes to body piercing and blood-letting, he believes in more is less, eyes being gouged are no big deal. Cities are ripped apart and entire populations are trampled upon as if it was a video game. One scene, where the mayhem suddenly stops, seems like the good old celluloid film running in reverse.

How do you comment about an actor who is covered top to toe in spandex, has the remnants of a pair of horns that need to be kept in shape by your father, with a face like a red rock carving and a right hand that is made of stone? David Harbour (Quantum of Solace, End of Watch, Suicide Squad) is Hellboy. Perhaps one could comment about his dialogue delivery, but most of it is inaudible. Milla Jovovich as Nimue goes through the motions, without doing any real bewitching. Charming and with an Indianness about her, Sasha Lane is a witty Alice. Ian McShane acts as Bruttenholm is a tongue-in-cheek manner, self-conscious about the self-parodying. (I know, you are missing the late John Hurt, but when you want Robert Downey Jr. and he’s not available, Ian McShane can sort of fill-in). Korean Daniel Dae Kim is seen as Ben Daimio, a Japanese-American who can turn into a Jaguar.

Thomas Haden Church does the role of Lobster Johnson, a vigilante and Hellboy’s hero. It’s a brief appearance. Penelope Mitchell plays Ganeida, an elder but attractive witch who betrays Nimue to Arthur. A quiet dignity is imparted by Sophie Okonedo to the character of Lady Hatton, the resident seer at the Osiris Club. Stephen Graham effectively provides the voice for Gruagach, while Douglas Tait provides the physical embodiment. And the best performance of the film comes from make-up legend Joel Harlow, the man who won an academy award for his work in Star Trek.

No such honour for the music composer Benjamin Wallfisch, with more noise than melody riding the sound waves. Tracks by Motley Crue and Alice Cooper erupt in sudden bursts, and serve only to recreate the period ambience.

I have not seen the 2004 and 2008 versions, so if 2019 appears in adverse light, you’re free to judge. Obviously, Neil Marshall would stand little chance of standing up to del Toro by understating his new narrative. Once the character/creature universe has been populated and identified, Andrew Cosby and Neil Marshall’s only gambit was to go over the top. It’s the viewers’ turn now. Take it with an open mind or leave it to better judgement.

Rating: ** 1/2


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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