The best Hellboy stories—the classics that defined the character for his too-numerous publications and films to come—maintain a careful balance. Tongue-in-cheek absurdity is tempered by dark, unwinking gothic imagery. Massive swaths of inky blackness are broken by lurid shades of flame. The Hell on Earth of Nazis and Lovecraft are cut with the down-to-earth grumble of an “aw, crap”. And violent battles are preceded by quiet, contemplative moments—a bird chirping, a statue’s stoic gaze, the stony form of a castle backgrounding the falling leaves of a graveyard’s dying tree.
The new Hellboy bothers with none of that. It’s as much a blunt, dull, lopsided instrument as the title hero’s Right Hand of Doom but far less likely to leave any lasting impact on anyone. A pointlessly crude, completely artless movie, it makes Guillermo del Toro’s flawed take look utterly faithful, certainly more heartfelt—and most importantly—watchable at all.
Neil Marshall directed the reboot, promoting it as being more akin to a horror film than those prior efforts. It is indeed, but only in that it’s bloody and needlessly gross. Actual, effective fright require some sort of lull to be roused from, but Marshall’s Hellboy has fewer quiet beats and seldom more subtlety than a Transformers movie, so it’s basically impossible here. Whenever the characters aren’t shouting at each other, and sometimes even when they are, Marshall is hitting loud, painful music cues—most often some generic heavy metal to let us know how badass it is whenever Hellboy does basically anything. (Early on and apropos of nothing, Hellboy asserts how much he prefers electric guitar to acoustic, lest anyone thinks this is completely arbitrary.)
Since earning some cult fans for the likes of The Descent and Doomsday, Marshall has been working in acclaimed genre TV, helming episodes of HBO series like Game of Thrones and Westworld. Likewise, Hellboy screenwriter Andrew Cosby has been earning his keep in television, writing for UPN’s forgotten Haunted before co-creating Syfy’s Eureka. Their TV background is all too apparent here, and it unfortunately errs on the side of Syfy over HBO.
To watch Hellboy is to sit through a two-hour sizzle reel for a series with Syfy as its safety and TNT as its Harvard. Fans of Hellboy creator Mike Mignola’s run of memorable tales will be very briefly thrilled to see so many iconic creatures included here, and later confused when so many are merely footnotes briefly highlighted in this exceptionally broad, often cheap-looking take. It’s endemic of just how muddily episodic and wasteful the film is as a whole.
Hellboy opens with a prologue eye-rollingly borrowing from the disparate likes of Schindler’s List (black and white and red in hooded girl only) and modern trailer culture (little sped-up bits for when we’re too bored to push in to a character for three seconds). Isolated from the main film by hundreds of years, it would have been the perfect time for Marshall to invoke the comics’ artistic style, but he instead aptly sets the stage for just what an uninspired vision is to come.
In that intro, we learn that the witch Nimue (Milla Jovovich), aka The Blood Queen, is hacked to shit by King Arthur, her parts divided, never to come together again. Except!—for kind of vague reasons, they are now forcing the demon spawn that is Hellboy to stop that (after a bunch of other incongruous, ever-gruesome tasks).
Like with many a recent reboot (thankfully), the movie doesn’t waste too much time on the origin story, so we won’t here either. Stranger Things’ David Harbour takes on the title role this time, and while he isn’t quite as nail-on-the-horned-head perfect as Ron Perlman, he’s good enough to make one wish for a better script and direction for him to work with. His is a Hellboy that’s far more a loudmouthed and one-liner-spouting than Perlman’s version—to his detriment. Instead of Nimue’s of-course-gross-looking plague, he catches the film’s own sickness: desperate smugness.
From our new Hellboy, to our new Professor Broom (Ian McShane, given free rein to play it so McShane-style that the film’s preceding John Wick 3 trailer can genuinely be confusing), to new B.P.R.D members Ben Daimio and Alice (Daniel Dae Kim and Sasha Lane, respectively), everyone in this thing is posturing as obnoxiously as the film itself. It’s all exceedingly insecure, and for good reason.
For as much a mess as it is, though, Hellboy actually nears its on-page inspiration in its finale. With a closing scene that muddles the sincere, the grotesque, and the dryly hilarious, there’s a moment when it seems the chiaroscuro scales of Mignola’s omnibus have, in the 11th hour, finally balanced.
Just after that, an epilogue upends any semblance of that being intentional with yet another tone-deaf scene that somehow has the unforgivable balls to ask for a sequel.
Come on, Hellboy. You may not be destined to end the world, but you sure as hell have ended this franchise again.
Director: Neil Marshall
Runtime: 120 minutes
Cast: David Harbour, Milla Jovovich, Ian McShane, Sasha Lane, Daniel Dae Kim