With some films, you know what you’ve got within 5 minutes. Within 5 minutes of Hellboy, you know you should walk out.
Films aren’t often made out of malice or spite, and nor is this review. But some movies descend down such a cliff, where the editing, the script, the directorial decisions, and the visuals all crash into a cinematic perdition with no chance of redemption. Director Neil Marshall‘s reboot of Guillermo Del Toro’s wildly successful adaptions of Mike Mignola’s comics is one such film, crafted with the auditory wherewithal of a banshee and the compulsion of a teenager, the film is a sharp thud in the lower dungeons of comic book purgatory.
Initially, Hellboy aims for a gritty no-nonsense retelling. The film opens in 517 AD on Pendle Hill. There, King Arthur and Merlin meet with a witch of unspeakable power Nimue “The Blood Queen” (Milla Jovovich). There to negotiate a truce between man and monsters, she’s betrayed by Arthur and her body is dismembered by his soldiers and hidden in various secret locations. Ian McShane, playing Hellboy’s father Professor Broom, narrates this exposition with a nonchalant and sloppy attitude, while the editing speeds through the sequence.
The film then shifts to the present day in Tijuana. Our hero, played by Stranger Things breakout star David Harbour, is searching for a former partner who was hunting vampires there. He finds his partner (who is dressed as a Lucha Libre) and the two engage in a pointless wrestling match concluding with a prophesy from his dying friend: “The end is coming.”
Hellboy then jumps to Colorado, base of the B.P.R.D. (Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense), then to London where our hero joins the Osiris Club to hunt killer giants. The editing through this entire sequence is rushed. With only one editor listed, Martin Bernfeld, Hellboy‘s continuity has the appearance of multiple editors with the intention of blindly picking shots to make a less-and-less coherent story by the second.
At the Osiris Club, the film runs headlong into its main narrative weakness: Hellboy doesn’t know what film it is. Initially, Marshall and co. gesture toward an origin story. We discover that Hellboy was brought from the underworld by Nazis desperate to turn the tide of World War II. The demon should have been destroyed, but the Professor decided to raise him as his own. However, the film then desperately attempts to become a family drama. Hellboy questions his place in the human world and rebels against his father. Neither tangent is particularly convincing. Instead, depending upon too much exposition not previously given.
Hellboy then jumps to Alice Monaghan (Sasha Lane), a powerful seer, who saves our hero from an ambush. Once rescued as a baby by Hellboy from fairies, she’s recruited into saving the world from Nimue whose body parts are being recovered by the man-pig Gruagach (Stephen Graham). Both Nimue and Gruagach are looking for revenge: Nimue against man and Gruagach against Hellboy. All the while, there’s Major Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim) of M11 who’s tasked with helping Hellboy and Alice, yet doesn’t trust the demon (even if he has his own secrets).
Once again, Marshall’s film depends too much on exposition the audience doesn’t have. At points, screenwriter Andrew Cosby understands this conundrum (it’s why he throws in more and more threads and unnecessary flashbacks to explain away narrative holes), but the ordeal is a mess. Not only does the film dabble in Arthurian myth and combine revenge with origin, there are instances of self-prophesying and “segregation.” That is, Hellboy running away from the premonition that he will end the world and the very nature of monsters being treated as second-class citizens for hunting (neither narrative is treated with any tact or patience).
The screenplay descends off a sharp cliff on multiple occasions and wastes a very fine cast. Milla Jovovich is a Sci-Fi/Fantasy veteran and she brings some great intensity. She’s the only component who’s capable of rising above such dreadful material. Harbour sinks under the dross sense of humor and plaintive plea to be cool with each successive needle drop (to be fair, Harbour’s task of filling Ron Perlman’s shoes was already monumental).
The film’s sense of humor is frustrating and crass, and not even in an endearing college bro sorta way (if such forgivable transgressions exist). The word “bitch,” used ad nauseam here, ceases to only serve as an expletive. With each quip by the Professor to Hellboy to not be a “bitch,” there’s an invading sense of misogyny. The film’s humor is a dangerous dance of hyper masculinity, made all the more uneasy by Alice’s power of recalling spirits from the dead by expelling an intestine length visage of them from her throat. There’s one instance involving a character that’s hilarious for its tone deafness and awfulness.
The soundtrack for Hellboy, you know the one portion of a film that really comes down to picking good songs, is just as dreadful. Any guitar line, song about the devil, or riff with a White 50-year old suburban dad edge to it, gets used no matter the context or vibe. In the first 20 minutes, there are probably 5 needle drops.
Even with a full embrace of blood and grime, Hellboy doesn’t provide any theatrics. One of the few highlights might be Harbour chasing around a pig baby through an apartment. And with almost devilish spite, there’s a wonderful moment during the film’s post-credit scene as well. There, you’ll see the type of humor and characterization the film could have been. You’ll also leave angry because of the two hour nonsensical money grab you were just fed. If there is a nadir of comic book films it’s here. Hellboy was better left in purgatory.