Mike Mignola’s Hellboy is not your typical superhero comic book. The character is a demon from Hell pulled to Earth by the Nazis with the help of Grigori Rasputin, which clearly illustrates just how in Mignola’s world supernatural mythology and history collide to create unusual adventures unbound by convention. Mignola’s creation has twice appeared on the silver screen in two films from acclaimed director Guillermo Del Toro, though the cliffhanger of his second film will never be resolved. Despite the fact that Hellboy has headlined two of his own movies, the character is still a rather fringe character with most people familiar with the character from Del Toro’s films. But this is Hollywood, baby, and we can’t sit on intellectual property for too long so here comes the Hellboy reboot from director Neil Marshall and starring Stranger Things breakout David Harbour as the big red hero. However, this reboot plays out like some kind of ancient curse that arises when a spell has been incanted wrongly, as pretty much nothing goes right for Hellboy aside from the spirited performance of its star.
The film opens in the Dark Ages as King Arthur and Merlin faces off against the nefarious Blood Queen Nimue (Milla Jovovich), an incredibly powerful witch. With the mighty sword Excalibur, Arthur dismembers Nimue and scatters her remains across the countryside to prevent the immortal being from becoming whole again. Centuries later, the boar-like creature Graugach (Stephen Graham) is discovering the disembodied remains of Nimue to return the slain witch from her exile.
As Nimue is being pieced together, Hellboy (Harbour) works as an agent for the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (B.P.R.D.), a secret agency dealing with the supernatural. Hellboy was found during World War II by Professor Broom (Ian McShane), and the professor has raised Hellboy as his own child. Despite prophecies that Hellboy will be the engine that drives the apocalypse, Professor Broom stands by his adopted son. Before Hellboy faces off with Nimue, he must first travel to Tijuana to battle vampires in a Lucha Libre ring as well as travel to England to battle giants alongside a secret society. After some unexpected complications, Hellboy winds up teaming with Alice Monaghan (Sasha Lane), a young woman with psychic abilities that he’s known since her childhood, and Major Ben Daimo (Daniel Dae Kim), a British M-11 agent who doesn’t trust his big red ally.
Screenwriter Andrew Crosby and director Neil Marshall needed to put their own spin on the character and material, not to try and recreate what Guillermo Del Toro had previous done and that’s the first area where Hellboy completely whiffs. In flashbacks we see Hellboy’s origins recreated in a manner that plays out like a cheap remake of the first film’s opening scenes. Thematically Hellboy traverses in similar territory as Del Toro’s sequel, with the big red guy pondering his place in the world as he’s split between the world of his birth and the world where he was raised. I didn’t want to compare Marshall’s Hellboy to Del Toro’s work, but the reboot invites comparisons when it clumsily goes over the exact same territory. The film trudges along without ever finding a flow between the adventure and the dense mythology, meaning anytime Hellboy gathers the least bit of momentum it has to grind to a halt so characters can explain exactly what is happening.
The biggest difference between this Hellboy and the previous films is the reboot’s R rating. This, sadly, adds nothing but unnecessary F-bombs and gallons of computer generated blood. Marshall doesn’t adequately tap into his horror roots, so there’s no suspense nor even repulsion at the liberal use of CG gore. The use of profanity is simply perfunctory, as if it’s the most edgy dialogue they could craft for 13-year-olds who think the films of Zack Snyder are intellectually profound. These two factors amount to a tedious experience devoid of thrills or wit, and the way Hellboy tries to cram every scene with a million revelations means that it feels like an early ‘00s comic book movie that wants to turn a sprawling anthology into a single two-hour movie at the expense of both plot and character.
Undoubtedly the best thing about Hellboy is the actor playing him, and it’s a shame that David Harbour’s solid work is buried in this muddled, disjointed movie. Even under layers of prosthetics and makeup, Harbour is able to embody the duality of Hellboy – the arrogant swagger of an all-powerful badass and the self-doubt of a being pulled between two worlds. Unfortunately, though, Harbour’s co-stars are mostly woefully miscast, and it’s hard to blame the actors when they’re presented with paper-thin characters and leaden dialogue. Only David Harbour and Milla Jovovich are able to bring any life to their characters because they’re the only actors allowed to have fun with their larger than life personas.
Hellboy is a muddled, overstuffed mess. Very few things go right in this unnecessary reboot. The computer effects look half-finished. The plotting is shambolic. The final act features some incredibly insane revelations that inspire more unintentional laughter than shock or surprise. This is a film devoid personality and that lack of identity means that it doesn’t know what audience it’s aiming at. It’s not scary or gory enough to win over hardcore horror fans and its action is so generic that even diehard superhero fans will yawn at the familiarity. Like the character himself, Hellboy seems like it’s the product of dark magic to pull something evil from the pits of Hell. It’s a shame. Big Red and David Harbour deserved better.
A muddled, overstuffed reboot, Hellboy is a movie without an audience as it’s not scary or gory enough for horror fans and too generic for superhero fans.