The original two Hellboy films couldn’t have asked for a more fitting cast and crew to breathe life into Mike Mignola’s comic. Director Guillermo del Toro has a knack for finding the beauty in misunderstood creatures, making us sincerely care about a red demon with a giant right arm. Ron Perlman was born to play Hellboy, bringing out the character’s humanity and humor. The films were also a great showcase for the always unrecognizable Doug Jones, who blended into the role of Abe Sapien over a decade before playing the creature in The Shape of Water. 2008’s The Golden Army in particular is one of the most underrated superhero movies ever. While it had the misfortune of opening just a week before The Dark Knight, The Golden Army was a wildly imaginative work of art with laughs, heart, and atmosphere to spare.
It’s a shame that del Toro’s planned third Hellboy movie has been forever banished to development hell. What’s even more disappointing, though, is that the Hellboy reboot lacks virtually everything that made its predecessors memorable. The film wants to be the dark, gritty adaption of Mignola’s comic, dropping f-bounds at random to ensure an R rating. While the reboot is certainly more graphic than its predecessors, the PG-13 Hellboy films ironically felt more adult. That’s because they treated their characters with respect and its audience with intelligence. The new Hellboy is more like a video game where you want to skip over the cutscenes to get to the boss battles already.
Taking his terrific work as Jim Hopper on Stranger Things into consideration, David Harbour seemed like a fitting choice to play Hellboy. Harbour’s physical transformation is undeniably impressive and the same can be said about Joel Harlow’s makeup effects. Where Perlman was able to become one with his makeup, however, all that red face paint works against Harbour, who looks and sounds as if he’s trying to chew his way out of a latex mask. While Harbour does his best to capture Hellboy’s devil-may-care spirit, his inability to emote results in a one-note performance. It doesn’t help that Harbour is stuck with a script that constantly leaves us asking, “what’s going on?” and “why should we care?”
In a nutshell, the story revolves around Milla Jovovich’s Blood Queen, a medieval sorceress who’s resurrected in a plot to unleash hell on earth. It’s Hellboy’s job to send the queen back to the underworld, teaming up with a medium (Sasha Lane) and a no-nonsense government agent (Daniel Dae Kim). All the while, Ian McShane spends most of the movie breathing down Hellboy’s hairy neck as his hard-ass father. On the hunt for the Blood Queen, Hellboy learns about his inner demons, suggesting that he may be the one destined to bring about the apocalypse. This just might be an interesting character study if the film wasn’t so focused on regurgitating exposition every five minutes.
This is one of those movies that confuses backstory for character development. The filmmakers are constantly hitting the breaks to tell us about these characters and this world, but they never allow us to experience any of it. Hellboy is at its best when it throws the plot out the window and settles for being a style over substance splatter fest. Indeed, Hellboy has its fair share of creative gore, occasionally even calling the Evil Dead movies to mind. There’s an especially exhilarating battle against three giants that earns comparison to the most recent God of War game. For every cool moment, however, there’s several minutes of characters spewing incomprehensible dialog in a dark, dreary room.
Hellboy simply doesn’t know what it wants to be. Sometimes it seems like Neil Marshall is trying to make a self-aware homage to pulp comics. Other times it’s as if he’s making a Syfy movie of the week. Even the visual are all over the map, ranging from Industrial Light & Magic quality to the kind of effects you’d see in Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. Whether you’re comparing it to del Toro’s films or viewing it as a standalone entity, Hellboy is a mess and it’ll probably take another reboot to reignite the flame.