I know it’s not fair to compare director Neil Marshall’s take on the demonic hero Hellboy to the visually stunning depictions by Guillermo del Toro, but it’s hard to shake the memories in the face of this jaw-dropping trainwreck. It is the polar opposite of del Toro’s movies, in which the talented filmmaker presented gorgeous displays of unique monsters and locations. The new Hellboy shirks the “show” and topples under the weight of its “tell,” spelling out everything to laughable degrees in this confusing mess of urban fantasy.
Replacing the iconic Ron Perlman in the role of Hellboy is David Harbour, who doesn’t quite have the same swagger. He tries to embody that rough and hard-drinking party monster who trimmed his horns, but he’s rarely given a moment to ease into the role. There’s no time to be charismatic when there’s a jumbled apocalyptic mission to attend to with the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD). Hellboy’s adoptive father, Trevor Bruttenholm (Ian McShane), fills us in early on the backstory behind the latest threat of the evil Blood Queen, Nimue (Milla Jovovich), who’s coming back from the dead to get revenge on humanity after King Arthur diced her up.
But before we can get to that whole ordeal of dark magic and swords, the story muddies itself up by shoving as many characters and backstories as it can into this overcrowded movie. There’s the magical Alice (Sasha Lane), who has a bit of a friendly history with Hellboy, but their camaraderie gets just as little development time as her powers, which are pretty nifty for the few seconds she’s allowed to use them. There’s the reluctant soldier, Ben (Daniel Dae Kim), who tries to work with Hellboy and is given just enough time to explain the scars on his face and his distrust of monsters.
But wait—that’s not all! There’s also the golden-age vigilante Lobster Johnson (Thomas Haden Church), who was around for Hellboy’s birth and not much else, wasting all his potential as a giddy and old-fashioned hero of yesteryear. There’s a mysterious witch who kind of has a thing for Hellboy, but mostly his eyes. A legion of veteran giant hunters invites Hellboy along for a horseback hunt with electrified pikes. Merlin also shows up for a little bit. And there’s a host of other characters who seemingly come out of nowhere, sometimes divulging too much backstory and sometimes not revealing anything because there’s no time. Not when the film has to speed towards its climax!
The most remarkable thing about this film is how it continuously tumbles over itself, with so much going on that none of the emotion comes through the screen. An appealing aspect of the script is how Hellboy feels he’s devalued by humanity to the point where he starts to agree with Nimue’s end-of-days plan, but where is that societal scowl towards him? He seems to be accepted well enough that he can stroll up to a bar and have a drink without much fuss. And this is where the fatal flaw lies: Hellboy is staged as a conflicted hero but doesn’t seem that conflicted. He’s targeted by some nasty individuals, but in terms of his public notoriety, he seems better able to walk through society than most of the demonic forces he tangles with.
And what of the action? What about Hellboy gunning down monsters for the fate of the world? It’s about as flat and lifeless as the film’s brief and blundering attempts at comedy between exposition. Hellboy spends most of the picture being pummeled and thrown around by the likes of vampires, giants, boars, and witches. This leads to several scenes relying on an awful lot of computer-generated visual effects that are clunky, to say the least. The scene in which Hellboy takes on three giants while being tossed like a football and sometimes wielding their giant swords is so unbelievably wonky I questioned why the film wasn’t just completely computer-animated.
In short, nothing in Hellboy works. The gruff nature of the title character always lands with a thud, while other characters spout off an unlimited supply of exposition like leaky faucets that won’t shut off. Everything in the picture is a towering mound of wasted potential, where even city-sized monsters brutalizing the populace of England are underwhelming. The film is pretty impressive, however, in how quickly it snowballs with its confounding filmmaking, which only grows more ridiculous and baffling by the minute. The only thing that got me through the third act was seeing how many more cars would crash in this trainwreck.
At best, Hellboy is a goofy bad movie worthy of slamming along with the likes of Resident Evil. At worst, it’s a prime example of how there’s a difference between bringing a fictional world to life and explaining it all in pointless and excruciating detail.