Guillermo Del Toro brought us two of the more visually imaginative superhero films ever made with Hellboy (2004) and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008), both of which give us relatable, endearing characters and narratives within a fantastical (and fantastically realized) world. After refusing to move forward with Del Toro’s proposed third film, Lionsgate has decided to reboot Hellboy with a new cast and an ultraviolent, R-rated angle. Unfortunately, in their aggressive efforts to be hardcore and edgy, the filmmakers forgot to tell a story with any coherence, wit, or visual invention, resulting in one of the more obnoxious theatrical experiences I have had in quite some time.
Neil Marshall directs this new film adaptation of comic writer Mike Mignola’s titular character, with David Harbour (Stranger Things, among many other things) embodying the half-man, half-demon paranormal investigator with a troublesome destiny. Raised by Professor Broom (Ian McShane) and under the direction of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, Hellboy has been brought up from childhood as a force for good, albeit a brute weapon of a force. When a sorceress (a super-hammy Milla Jovovich) from the times of King Arthur is resurrected and hellbent on revenge, our red-bodied protagonist must work together with an old friend, Alice Monaghan (Sasha Lane), and Major Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim) to defeat her and grapple with who he’s meant to be.
From the opening flashback scene, Hellboy proudly announces and embraces its over-the-top ridiculousness with a vulgar voiceover from McShane and a disembodied head within the first five minutes. This self-aware attitude pervades the whole film, drawing obvious comparisons to the meta absurdity of Deadpool. The difference between the two is that Deadpool’s script finds clever ways to upend the superhero genre; Hellboy falls back on lame pop culture references and puns that feel forced, rather than true to the characters. The humor in Del Toro’s Hellboy films comes from the characters and their individuality. Everyone in this new version talks in the same manner (even the monsters), and after a good 20 minutes of forced comedy, it all becomes oppressive.
David Harbour tries his best to bring a new energy to this version of Hellboy, but his usually reliable charisma is hampered by a lot of prosthetic makeup and a directorial tendency to just have him shout all of his lines. His dynamic with Sasha Lane and Daniel Dae Kim never really finds itself, leaving much of the emotional weight on the relationship between Hellboy and his adoptive father. Thanks to McShane’s reliable character work, him and Harbour together bring a sweetness to their dynamic among all the sour notes. And even still, the laughable third act hinders what should be a very emotionally resonant arc for these two characters.
The action sequences also can’t overcome the lack of narrative weight, further plagued by some distractingly poor CGI. One scene with a disfigured, rather flexible old witch takes place in a walking house. Visually interesting and staged in an effective way, this scene is just about the only creative set piece in the whole film. The ultraviolent scenes are ludicrously bloody and gory, and they are practically disconnected from whatever hint of a story Marshall and screenwriter Andrew Cosby are attempting to tell. A scene with a giant, ghoulish demon rising from the ground and wreaking havoc in London is done away with in a matter of seconds, making all the bloody carnage come off as mean-spirited and just plain ugly.
And this is perhaps the biggest problem with Hellboy: all of the humor and ultraviolence barely register on any kind of entertainment scale, because the story beneath it all is overstuffed, unfocused, and dramatically empty. Every 15-20 minutes, the plot stops dead in its tracks, so that we can get a flashback origin of each principal character that stands as the only semblance of “character development.” The script is so focused on what happened before the story it’s telling that the film essentially boils down to this pattern: location change (often jarringly edited), flashback, action scene, repeat. There’s not much to latch onto there.
Hellboy so badly wants you to think that it’s cool and edgy, but it comes off as forced at every turn. All action and attitude, and lacking the cleverness to deliver on its self-aware nature, it all amounts to a noisy mess. When (and if) the eventual sequel gets released, you will find me at home happily re-watching Del Toro’s superior work.
Hellboy is rated R and is now in theaters.