Imagine if someone has never read a Hellboy comic before. Even if that person enjoyed Guillermo del Toro’s two adaptations in 2004 and 2008, they never really felt the urge to pick up Mike Mignola’s cartoon creation. But with the 2019 remake impending, why not? And for added convenience, let’s say they stumbled across The Wild Hunt collection from 2008 to 2009 that advertised itself as “The inspiration for the new Hellboy film.” Though Mignola’s smarmy writing for his lead and Duncan Fegredo’s gloomy art style are immediately enjoyable, one might be a little lost in the context of events and the universe of the comic by jumping in the middle of a long-stretching story arc.
If it’s any consolation, director Neil Marshall and writer Andrew Cosby likely felt the exact same way; their Hellboy movie is just as confusing and jagged as a lone piece of paper ripped out of the pages of a larger book. Surprisingly, their movie is an even more condensed version of The Wild Hunt where our titular hero (David Harbour), liquored up and eternally annoyed, is recruited by a secret British organization to hunt down some giants roaming the mountains. Saved by spunky spirit medium Alice (Sasha Lane), Hellboy learns he’s in the middle of a plot to resurrect an evil witch known as The Blood Queen (Milla Jovovich), who plots to unleash hell on the world. With the help of Alice, grouchy surrogate father Professor Broom (Ian McShane) and Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense agent Ben (Daniel Dae Kim), Hellboy scours the world looking for the Queen with the expressed purpose of kicking ass and taking names.
Given how striking and iconic del Toro’s movies were, Marshall seemed like a safe pick to direct Hellboy given his track record with grisly horror (Dog Soldiers, The Descent and Doomsday). Unfortunately, Marshall’s direction has lead to a rushed, unfocused film. He and the team of art, set and costume designers mostly nail the atmosphere of the comics, but Marshall isn’t interested in the minute details of the universe. The tight two-hour runtime is dedicated to either jumbled plot exposition, gory action scenes or Hellboy spewing corny one-liners. The horrid editing makes Uwe Boll’s work in House of the Dead and Alone in the Dark look competent. Abrupt cuts to establishing shots and random cuts to unassuming facial reactions during conversations make the movie’s pace jarring for no good reason other than to shake the audience out of its boredom-induced complacency. Though it’s respectable that Marshall doesn’t resort to choppy editing for the movie’s fight scenes and instead tries to make it replicate one-take sequences, it doesn’t block out the obvious green screen Hellboy is running in front of throughout the “fight.” Whatever hope the goofier tone and R-rating had to make Hellboy standout is permanently sunk by Cosby’s weak script. The jokes don’t land, the plot is incomplete, the story sprints to the finish without any tension and does nothing with its characters.
No blame should be put on the colorful cast who try their damnedest to breathe life into this rotting cadaver of a movie. Despite slugging around pounds of red makeup, a giant trench coat and a plaster boxing glove on his right hand, Harbour is without question the main redeeming quality of Hellboy. More droll and closer to a petulant teenager than Perlman’s portrayal, he at least makes his line delivery cheeky and likable at a base level. His character is unfortunately missing true motivation to save the world and occasionally looks as bored as the audience does. Harbour has enough bravado to carry himself through scenes, same goes for Lane who matches his sarcastic wit throughout their exchanges. It’s commendable that the movie doesn’t make her a damsel in distress by giving her medium powers, but her sudden ability to punch spirits out of zombies is as groan-worthy as if the movie made her makeout with Harbour. Dae Kim is the straight man in all the wacky, gory hijinks in the movie and his constant annoyance with all the hoopla could be generously classified as a vessel for the audience’s thoughts. McShane is barely in the movie, and when he is his lines are delivered in a garbled, almost-drunken stupor. At the very least he has legitimate chemistry with Harbour in the few touching father-son scenes they have together. Jovovich, no stranger to gory action movies, looked like she was missing the days of nonsensically kicking a shard of glass into a zombie dog’s face in the Resident Evil movies as she’s got nothing to do here but wave her red clothing in front of a wind machine. For someone so used to grisly mystical violence, she seems horribly miscast as the forgettable villain.
Hellboy is like if James Gunn got drunk and tried merging del Toro’s aesthetic with Indiana Jones on the budget of a SyFy original movie. Creatively bankrupt and annoyingly immature, any potential for a distinct vision is destroyed by sloppy filmmaking and lackluster writing, which is a shame because there’s plenty of potential in the universe of the Hellboy comics. Hellboy, like other comic book characters, is only as interesting as his villains and sidekicks around him that offer development. There has to be an interest in Hellboy’s world to bring it to life, something more than the greed of a movie studio cashing in on rebooted brands.