'Hellboy': What the Critics Are Saying

Reviews for Neil Marshall's R-rated comic-book adaptation are mostly negative, with it being called a "crack pipe of a movie" in which "the real villain...is its rotten writing."
Mark Rogers

Reviews are in for Neil Marshall's fiery Hellboy reboot and the critical response is pretty scorching.

Written by BOOM! Studios founder and Eureka scribe Andrew Cosby, the film stars Stranger Things actor David Harbour in the title role alongside Ian McShane, Milla Jovovich, Daniel Dae Kim and Sasha Lane. An origins-focused reboot of Guillermo del Toro's 2004 adaptation, Hellboy creator Mike Mignola consulted significantly on the pic, which is based on several of the comic's storylines.

In theaters Friday, April 12, the film about a fiery red demon and his team of monstrous misfits who take on an ancient apocalypse-obsessed sorceress had a 13 percent score on review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes the afternoon of its nationwide release.

In a review for The Hollywood Reporter, critic John DeFore describes the film as lousy, but not "because nobody wants it, nor only because it fails to live up to both its big-screen and printed predecessors." Instead, DeFore says the film earns its less-than-impressive label because it's "bloated, vastly less funny than it aims to be," and is often misguided, though sometimes bold, in key creative choices.

DeFore acknowledges that the R-rated film, helmed by the director of the 2005 horror pic The Descent, had potential to generate "the delicious, stylish gloom of Mignola's comic, whose atmosphere was so seductive it could make you terrified of a frog." However, character designers and Cosby made several "questionable choices" when it came to the film's leading monster, along with an overindulgence of action sequences and writing a few less-than-interesting characters, including McShane's Professor Broom and Dae Kim's Ben Daimio. "Saving humanity is something this big red monster can do," DeFore concludes. "Saving Hellboy as a big-screen franchise is something else entirely."

Vox entertainment critic Alex Abad-Santos wrote that though the film's "nightmare visuals are stellar, the real villain of the movie is its rotten writing, which turns Hellboy into hanging action sequences loosely stitched together by two or three sentences and a vague suggestion of a narrative." Abad-Santos stated that the film's success with its "gory aesthetic" and "demons and other underworld denizens" extends to "Hellboy’s fight scenes, turning them into beautifully deranged spectacles." But ultimately, "Hellboy then becomes nothing more than a tensionless goop that squanders its star, a story that might be better served as a montage in a future Hellboy sequel, should some unfortunate mind create another one of these."

For Salon, Matthew Rozsa is much more critical of the film's creature design, writing that on top of an overuse of CGI, "A big part of the problem is that the creature designs are unremarkable — if you've seen any generic demonic action or horror flick, you won't be blown away with what you find here." Continuing his critique of the film's visual aesthetic, Rosza stated that the most disappointing aspect of the film is "the degree to which it is visually unremarkable." The Salon critic also tackles the film's relationships, including the "implied romance" between Harbour's Hellboy and Jovovich's sorceress.

After describing their romantic development as Jovovich's character "trying to convince Hellboy that he should marry her for social justice reasons," Rozsa labels it as the film's most disappointing subplot. "On the one hand, adding that level of moral ambiguity to a story called 'Hellboy' may have been ill-advised. Then again, at least it would have been interesting, and that would have been a marked improvement over what's left behind on screen."

In The New York Times, Jeannette Catsoulis describes Hellboy as a "crack pipe of a movie," and an "aural and visual assault" that left her both baffled and battered. Beyond the script "tearing" through several centuries, countries and characters, according to Catsoulis, Marshall "directs like a dog at a squirrel convention, charging gleefully from one witlessly violent encounter to the next." Catsoulis is critical of the film's special effects, which "are often more gooey than ghoulish," and concludes that she was eager for it to end. "'The end is coming,' Hellboy’s dying friend says near the beginning, and I was already thinking, 'Oh yes, please.'"  

Los Angeles Times reviewer Justin Chang somewhat jokingly likens the film's plague sequences to a "wild" Brexit documentary, writing, "A spattery inanity that feels less like a reboot than an aftershock, Hellboy may offer an unwittingly truthful snapshot of a nation devouring itself from within." Yet he goes on to say that the film's political allegories fall short, due to a stronger focus on the film's "severed heads and dangling eyeballs."

Although Chang puts Marshall's artistic passion for the story on the same level as del Toro's, he writes that the English director delivers a "more crudely, monotonously" expressed version in a landscape that's not only already had del Toro's cinematic treatment, but also now features a plethora of comic-book characters and world-ending battles. "The movie seems to spring from a curious awareness of how unnecessary it is, and it responds in the manner of an uninvited guest, with no interest in behaving or ingratiating itself," Chang writes.

Christy Lemire of RogerEbert.com is ultimately less impressed with the film's horror-gore aspects, writing that "under the watch of director Neil Marshall, we get empty bombast and a million bloody ways to rip a body to pieces, too few of which are inventive." Compared to del Toro's 2004 and 2008 Hellboy entries, Marshall let his version "spiral wildly out of control," Lemire writes, and though that's somewhat the point, "just because a movie is ridiculous and knows it's ridiculous, that doesn’t automatically make its ridiculousness work."

The film forgets that funny is often accompanied by fun, according to Lemire, and those are two elements that get overtaken by the film's violence "that might have been more tolerable, though, if the action sequences were choreographed and staged in a more thrilling manner."