Despite an amusing turn by David Harbour, the revival of the hit film series is a disappointing mess.
Back in 2004, a fairly unknown indie darling of a director gave the world a very atypical superhero film. In a world where Batman and Superman were the only comic characters that studios could rely on, the idea of producing a film featuring an indie comic book anti-hero from Hell was risky to say the least. But, strangely enough, good things happen when you combine the right mixture of passion and talent. Guillermo del Toro’s original Hellboy became a fan favorite. Enough so that del Toro was given the green light to create the even more loved Hellboy II: The Golden Army as the follow-up to his first Oscar nomination. Fans had been clamoring for a trilogy ever since. In 2017 over 100,000 people voted in a Twitter poll posted by del Toro himself to beg for a new film.
So, the powers that be did what anyone would do: they rebooted it with completely different people. And, holy hell, they really, really shouldn’t have.
Breaking against the usual tradition of the reboot, this newest Hellboy isn’t an origin story. Hellboy (David Harbour, Stranger Things) is tasked with taking down Nimue the Blood Queen (Milla Jovovich), an Arthurian era witch with the power of spreading pestilence and, well, pretty much anything else she wants to do. Her spells are just as powerful as they are vague. When Nimue returns to bring Hell on Earth, she attempts to get Hellboy to join her as her king of the oncoming apocalypse. And from there, the plot goes so far off the rails that it ends up in a cornfield about twenty miles from the nearest track.
Andrew Cosby (creator of SyFy’s Eureka and founder of BOOM! Comics) has built a script that both tries to do so much and accomplishes pretty much nothing. If Aquaman’s secondary power in his film was moments of complete convenience, then Hellboy is clearly the Superman of lucky moments. Much of the plot is only progressed by Hellboy being thrown into random scenarios that just so happen to help him. No clues on where to find Nimue? Well, heck, have the legendary witch Baba Yaga show up to offer the only helpful clue. Is Hellboy about to be killed? Throw in an impossibly stealthy pack of giants to kill the people trying to assassinate him.
Is Hellboy facing a lesser foe that has every opportunity to wipe him out, possibly setting up an act three low point? Nah, that act structure is for suckers. Have Nimue tell her minion to knock it off and just leave. For a character so deeply enshrined in action, this version of Hellboy is one of the most passive characters since The Dude.
About the only aspect of the script that seems to offer any intensity are the not one, not two, but four flashback origin stories. Luckily, it’s not the back-to-back Suicide Squad style, but it happens more than enough to jam up any momentum the film may even have in the moment. On the upside, it does happen enough to make for one heck of rule for a drinking game.
For a character so deeply enshrined in action, this version of Hellboy is one of the most passive characters since The Dude.
The direction by Neil Marshall (The Descent) can’t hold a candle to Guillermo del Toro’s original work. Instead of the practical effects and character design of the original Hellboy films, we instead get all the CGI possible. The side effect of so many of the action scenes being CGI heavy is that it becomes all the more noticeable with the practical make-up work on Hellboy. In a scene where Hellboy fights three giants in the British countryside, it legit looks like they just plugged Harbour into a black box space covered in green walls and told him to run around. None of the action scenes have any feeling of realism and have more in common with a video game cut scene. Even worse, the CGI has no cohesive theme. It feels as though there were multiple different companies contracted to make the various creatures without the knowledge that other people were working on the film.
And (spoilers…..skip a paragraph if you need to) we need to talk about the newest addition to the bad CGI pantheon. Rivaling A Wrinkle in Time’s Mecha-Oprah and Aladdin‘s First Draft Live Action Genie, we have…Ectoplasm-Ian-McShane. The basis of this effect is honestly a damn fine idea. Hellboy’s old friend Alice Monaghan (Sasha Lane) can talk to the dead. If they are recently deceased, then they form out of her mouth as a mass of ectoplasm, much like the turn of the century pictures of claimed seers. It should look amazing. But when Ian McShane forms, during a very serious, plot pivotal moment, it’s an uncanny valley of horror and hilarity. Any stakes are at a dead stop. It’s both a display of the volume of talent behind whoever worked on that
All of this is a genuine bummer for Harbour. There aren’t many people who could pull off Hellboy and he is absolutely one of the few. Thanks to the script though, there hardly seems to be a chance to let Hellboy’s complexities come through. He jokes just a little too much, especially when it feels like it would be better for him to react physically or remain silent. Most disappointing is that the best moment of Harbour’s performance comes in a mid-end credits scene. It’s pure Hellboy and, as awesome as that moment is, it makes it all the more frustrating that we don’t get to see it in the two hours prior.
As for the rest of the cast, they mostly do fine. McShane plays 80% of the characters he has played before, and does it very well. Daniel Dae Kim’s British accent is so posh it might give the audience gout, but damn if it doesn’t work. Jovovich is clearly having a fun time, but she needs so much more to make the character truly become fearsome. The one disappointing low point in the acting would be Lane. Saddled with a Cockney-adjacent accent, about a third of her lines come off more performative than in character. With every other issue in the movie surrounding her performance, it just makes those occasional false-feeling deliveries even more pronounced.
There aren’t enough synonyms for how disappointing this movie was. Knowing del Toro and Perlman were interested in coming back to make a third installment amplifies the misguided choice of going with a full reboot. Rumor has it that the reason for the sudden interest in making a new Hellboy was to follow on the sudden R-rated success of Deadpool. But instead of following a trend, studios need to take their lesson from Logan. That it’s not enough to have just gore and swears in a superhero film: it also has to be good.