Who, exactly, was clamoring for a Hellboy reboot? After watching Guillermo del Toro deliver one of the most on-target comic book adaptations in fanboy history in 2004/2008, starring an actor who might as well have been genetically engineered to play the part, surely everyone with an emotional investment in Mike Mignola’s one-of-a-kind superhero was content. Surely the only people wanting more are those who control the film rights to the character, who’ve probably been watching Marvel print money for a decade and asking, “Why aren’t we cashing in on this craze?”
But Neil Marshall’s Hellboy isn’t lousy because nobody wants it, nor only because it fails to live up to both its big-screen and printed predecessors. It’s just lousy. Bloated, vastly less funny than it aims to be and misguided in key design choices even when it scores with less important decisions, the film does make bold choices that might have paid off under other circumstances. But these aren’t those circumstances.
The most intriguing risk here is to make 2019’s Hellboy an R-rated film, theoretically allowing Marshall (The Descent) and screenwriter Andrew Cosby to push their adventure into more grisly horror-film territory. There’s a boatload of gore here, ranging from rather silly decapitations to some actually startling images. (The script also makes liberal use of the word “fuck,” whether it’s called for or not.) Where del Toro’s 2004 original favored the Lovecraftian abyss, Marshall and his talented team of monster-makers sometimes conjure body-destroying beasts Hieronymus Bosch would have approved. If only the art department came closer to placing these things in something like the delicious, stylish gloom of Mignola’s comic, whose atmosphere was so seductive it could make you terrified of a frog.
Every few scenes, there’s an enjoyably weird giant, changeling, witch or unnamable impaler competing for our attention. Sadly, the designers fare less well with the creature who is onscreen from start to finish. The artists tasked with turning Stranger Things‘ David Harbour into the title character (Ron Perlman played him in del Toro’s two films) make several questionable choices that don’t pay off. First, there’s the guy’s hair — in print, he has no more hair on the top of his head than on his shoulders; here, he has a sickly coif that brings to mind the 2004 film’s jokes about hair implants. Then there are the qualities which earned Hellboy the nickname Big Red. In the comics, the big lug’s skin and his oversized right fist (made of stone, unlike his left hand) are the same color — red as infernal flame. Here, Hellboy’s smashing-hand has an orange cast, while his flesh is a shade of pink that, however undesirable, probably wouldn’t shock an emergency-room nurse who has worked near a Florida beach during Spring Break.
While Harbour’s winning performance on Stranger Things — a gruffly old-fashioned savior, lumbering reluctantly into harm’s way when women and children are endangered — makes him a credible choice to lead any non-Perlman Hellboy film, Cosby’s script gives him little chance to bring the good-guy demon to life. It does far worse when it reimagines Hellboy’s “father,” the human paranormal researcher who discovered him during World War II: Ian McShane’s Professor Broom is no more interesting than a thousand other stay-in-the-office bosses who dole out exposition between action-movie set pieces. (Raise a chalice to the late John Hurt, who in 2004 looked like he had stepped out of Mignola’s drawings to play Broom.)
The broad strokes of Cosby’s story fit pretty well into Mignola’s universe: In the Dark Ages, King Arthur defeated a sorceress called Nimue the Blood Queen (Milla Jovovich) when she wanted to help fairy-tale monsters take over the world. He chopped her corpse up and buried her all over England, meaning that when some present-day baddies want to revive her, they have to do it bit by bit. Cue an amusing scene in which the half-assembled Jovovich sits on a sofa complaining to the humanoid wild boar trying to find all her limbs.
Before Hellboy gets to stop Nimue’s evil plans, he must go hunting giants in the English countryside, confront a decaying witch called Baba Yaga, and reconnect with the young psychic sidekick (Sasha Lane’s Alice) whose life he once saved. These two join a very grouchy military man (Daniel Dae Kim, whose character is a bore until the third act) in a chase that will eventually take them deeper than you expect into Arthurian lore. (Hellboy’s better-known partners Abe Sapien and Elizabeth Sherman aren’t around for this ride.)
Everyone who works with Broom in the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense is convinced that their comrade Hellboy is about to revert to his devilish origins, somehow bringing about the end of humanity when the Blood Queen gets her act together and summons him. Some are actively trying to kill him; others have emergency plans in place. Hellboy himself suspects he might fail when put to the test — but where this self-doubt might make him a charismatically brooding, wounded hero, Cosby’s script sees Hellboy more as an angsty teenager, throwing dull tantrums in Broom’s office.
Several action sequences work well on their own, but the pic offers too many of them: Long before we hit the two-hour mark, viewers will have observed several points at which the script could have wrapped things up nicely. Marshall plods through his plagues and apocalypses, hitting some familiar-feeling story beats on his way to convincing Hellboy he is, indeed, a hero. Saving humanity is something this big red monster can do. Saving Hellboy as a big-screen franchise is something else entirely.
Production company: Nu Boyana
Cast: David Harbour, Milla Jovovich, Ian McShane, Sasha Lane, Daniel Dae Kim
Director: Neil Marshall
Screenwriter: Andrew Cosby
Producers: Lawrence Gordon, Lloyd Levin, Philip Westgren, Matt O’Toole
Executive producers: Mike Mignola, Avi Lerner, Lati Grobman
Director of photography: Lorenzo Senatore
Production designer: Paul Kirby
Costume designer: Stephanie Collie
Editor: Martin Bernfeld
Composer: Benjamin Wallfisch
Casting director: Dan Hubbard
Rated R, 120 minutes