Neil Marshall’s Hellboy has faced immeasurable apprehension since satanic conception, as Guillermo del Toro and Ron Perlman’s defenders voiced outrage upon hearing Lionsgate’s decision to reboot Big Red anew versus honoring continuation after Hellboy II: The Golden Army. After all, why start over when del Toro’s expansive man-vs-monster wonderland has chapters collecting dust on a shelf?
One word: “darker.”
Hellboy creator Mike Mignola assured us this new take would be “darker” and more attuned to horror grimness. Writer Andrew Cosby also promised a “darker” and more gruesome beginning. Newly appointed “Right Hand Of Doom” David Harbour promoted a “bloody and brutal” endgame as well. To fans of Hellboy’s mature illustrated content, to moviegoers thirsting for meaner comic book adaptations, Lionsgate’s marketing campaign buzzed all the right words – which makes this tonally disastrous and misrepresented R-rated mess doubly disappointing.
In Logan, Fox embraced an R-rating to send Hugh Jackman’s silver-clawed X-Men cowboy off with true western grit. In Deadpool, Fox opted for R-rated antics of Deadpool’s Ginsu-assassin and mouthy variety. In Hellboy, an R-rating is nothing but an excuse to liberally pepper the word “fuck” and dismember victims in an afterthought music video fashion.
Logan and Deadpool don’t lean on R-ratings as a crutch. These are movies defined by content and situationally served by more graphic experiences, whereas Hellboy scatters guts and profanity like disjointed underworld Mad Libs. Cosby’s screenplay proves an astonishing lack of understanding *why* “dark, gritty” R-rated movies of the past succeeded, mainly in that rationale, thematic imperatives and necessity remain paramount.
Oh, but it’s far worse than Ian McShane’s first line of narration dropping an “F-bomb” when describing England’s Black Plague for no gosh-darn reason (see, you don’t *have* to swear – even when you want to).
As paranormal investigator Hellboy (David Harbour) – summoned by Nazi-backed Grigori Rasputin during WWII and fathered by Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (B.P.R.D) director Professor Broom (Ian McShane) – fights his apocalyptic destiny stone-hand over fist, scenes clash as if directed by multiple filmmakers. One sequence is crushed under thick midnight darkness you can barely see through, while the next has Osiris Club hunters riding horseback to the tune of UK rockers Royal Blood. One minute Hellboy’s trapped in Baba Yaga’s alternate house-with-chicken-legs reality declining to eat children, the next Mötley Crüe’s “Kickstart My Heart” tunes a one(ish) take B.P.R.D action sequence meant to rev your excitement.
*Someone* wanted Hellboy to be dark, dreadful and nightmarish, but the final product’s flow suggests another party opposed. In the end, it all feels like a jumbled clash of conflicting ideologies sewn together with unsteady hands (and continuity carelessness).
Lionsgate so desperately thirsts for a Hellboy franchise, but at a storytelling detriment. Plot points are ignored or undercooked on the regular. Maybe it’s psychic Alice Monaghan’s (Sasha Lane) discovery of her “ghost punch” abilities with nary an explanation beyond, “I don’t know!” Or Hellboy’s forgotten pact with a particularly slashy Baba Yaga over one of his eyes (she seems too obsessed not to emerge once more). Villain Nimue “The Blood Queen” (Milla Jovovich), meanwhile, suffers from early Marvel syndrome in that she’s barely a nemesis beyond trying to goad Hellboy into accepting his rightful enflamed throne (bringing Hell unto Earth).
Advancement is always in Hellboy’s favor and never with issued tension in mind, and it’s so noticeable when legitimate adversaries – like musclebound boar-man Gruagach (Stephen Graham) – are unceremoniously shooed away by Nimue during a pivotal brawl (Gruagach’s motivation comes from nothing but childhood embarrassment, no less). It’s all such pick-and-choose importance, favoring singular moments over cohesive sustainability.
Visually, aside from Harbour’s prosthetic Hellboy suit, VFX pale in comparison to the rich fantasy realm del Toro once imbued with extraordinary and snarly spiritedness. The previously mentioned “darkness” that the creators desired translates literally to the screen, in that you’ll constantly wish to adjust the “dimness” setting while watching – although, during brighter altercations, animations fail reality tests. Hellboy must slay three marrow-munching giants and to do so, fighting takes place entirely against some of 2019’s worst green screen work (frantic and blurry) I’ve seen yet. Oh, and it gets worse!
Alice’s method of channeling the dead requires passed souls to spring from her mouth (think icky insides apparitions), and during the film’s climax, [redacted] returns in this form. It’s…eesh. Not a great look! Digital renders are nothing impressive – from monster fights to world-building, which makes me ponder Hellboy’s budget (and where it went).
Harbour’s incarnation of “Big Red” is defined by sight gags (for instance, he keeps breaking smartphones by tapping them with his rock finger) and dead weight puns, much like the entire film, tragically. Hellboy’s confliction over hunting monsters of his kind wavers in-and-out of a comedic routine that’s as dry as they come, making for a flimsy, stale experience that struggles to find emotional chemistry with papa Broom despite their relationship driving Hellboy’s rebellion, angst and hidden compassion. Harbour himself is not the issue, but instead, it’s the film’s inability to strike a consistent punch between Hellboy the super buff menace and Hellboy the pizza-chewin’ brat.
Wait, what happened to the “dark grittiness” once teased?
Granted, Hellboy gets gory. When first hunting the countryside giants, the hero glimpses mutilated corpses scattered across verdant farmland. When Gruagach invades a silent monastery, removed monk limbs are tossed against a wall while blood squirts. When Hellboy wields Excalibur as a fulfillment of damning prophecy – oh, right. Hellboy is a blood descendant of King Arthur. The legendary knight responsible for slicing Nimue into seven pieces, each chunk sealed in chests blessed by Merlin, then hidden in secret to prevent reassembly.
In any case, Hellboy’s exploitation of lineage summons mega-demons through cracked asphalt that start slaying innocents in goregasmic ways (spiked by dagger feet, intestines spilling from spit halves, pulled apart by two flying imps). The issue, as displayed in the latter example, comes back to necessity given how in a matter of minutes the entire onslaught is “undone” and the film proceeds as if the whole disgusting massacre never occurred despite *so much* slaughter.
It’s almost like a post-production additive for no reason other than increased body count? Hmm.
Here’s the truth, Hellboy fans. I, of all people, should adore a “darkened” adaptation of any gothically styled and cynical comic “hero” that features a vampire luchador altercation or the band Muse scoring Devil David vs. Triple Goliath bouts. One that gives M-11’s Major Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim) a Predator homage backstory. Where humans werewolf-transform into jaguar warriors, Milla Jovovich commands the screen as an immortal doomsday witch, and David Harbour (rightfully) becomes Hellboy – but not like this.
The goal was clearly to separate 2019’s Hellboy from Guillermo del Toro’s canon through fierceness and sinister horror influences that Neil Marshall would achieve (The Descent/Dog Soldiers/Doomsday). The reality? The film takes del Toro’s mold, adds more cussing, minimizes budget and downgrades the magnificent treatment of monsters which garnered so much adaptive praise in the early 2000s. Honestly, it’s something del Toro himself could have markedly improved given the opportunity. Instead, we have to endure another “dark, gritty” reboot gone haplessly awry.
Hellboy feels editorially chopped to bits, tonally disjointed and created from clashing perspectives that make for the type of "dark, gritty" reboot that misunderstands why certain "dark, gritty" reboots end up working.