The new Hellboy movie doesn’t start with an origin story. Instead, it begins with a lengthy history lesson about King Arthur before switching focus to a wrestling ring hundreds of miles away in Mexico. The titular character is trying to coax a colleague back to work, only to find out said colleague has been possessed by an evil spirit. Naturally, he has to fight. There’s hard rock playing and the showdown has plenty of blood and gore, but the Hellboy we see is a far cry from the Guillermo Del Toro predecessors. Those films – Hellboy (2004) and its sequel Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) – were the epitome of fan service: a celebrated auteur taking a cult superhero and refusing to dumb it down. Ron Perlman pulled off a career-high as Hellboy, which leads us to wonder: was a reboot truly necessary?
Of course it was, according to director Neil Marshall. We needed a proper Hellboy film that was closer in spirit to the comics, with an R rating that would allow Marshall and crew to take us to hell and back. We needed something kickass, a more gruesome version of Hellboy with plenty of gore and guts to spare. The problem with this new iteration is that the kickass is nowhere to be found.
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In fact, the reimagined Hellboy is none of these things we were promised. It’s a fractured romp that reboots Hellboy (David Harbour) as a whiny demon hunter caught between two worlds – the human world and the demon underworld – all the while trying to make sense of it all. While the main crux of the movie deals with Hellboy looking to stop an evil sorceress (Milla Jovovich) from attempting to wipe out humanity, he also has to deal with giants, Nazis, fairies, witches, a massive pig changeling seeking revenge, English nobles, and grappling with his own personal destiny as a harbinger of the end times.
Jettisoning the Lovecraftian-inspired worlds built by del Toro in favor of a gritty, grounded-in-reality approach, Hellboy looks towards a fellow R-rated comic book movie for inspiration: Deadpool, a fun action-packed comedic slugfest that didn’t compromise in its adult humor. But under Marshall’s direction, Hellboy is a loud, virulent mess. Bogged down by unnecessary exposition and the need to address a hundred and one different plot threads, the film struggles to strike a consistent tone. We rarely get moments that allow us to truly connect with Hellboy as the pacing throws us from moment to moment haphazardly, rarely allowing a scene breathing room. It’s meant to feel urgent but instead comes across as claustrophobic and cluttered, seemingly more concerned with an excessive need for blood and gore.
Hellboy doesn’t know what it wants to be, a fact reflected by its performances. Harbour plays Hellboy like an angsty teenager, hardly resembling the Beast of the Apocalypse. His moments of self-doubt come across as sulky brooding, and action scenes often showcase him out of his element, undermining any emotional investment the film may have gained. How’s Hellboy supposed to stop a Blood Queen and stop the end of the world if he’s constantly getting his ass kicked? With that said, Milla Jovovich turns in a fantastic performance as Nimue, chewing scenery as she coaxes Hellboy into embracing his destiny by helping her bring about the apocalypse.
Trapped between wanting to appeal to moviegoers seeking another Suicide Squad, Hellboy fans looking for something closely resembling the comics, and a desire to differentiate from the del Toro films, Hellboy collapses under its own weight. Conflicts are rarely addressed or given proper weight as the story attempts to juggle Arthurian lore, the paranormal, and straight up horror elements. It fails at all three. In the world of humans, Hellboy struggles to find a proper place and space to utilize his demon-aided talents. It’s a shame the film couldn’t be bothered to do the same.