There’s a scene about halfway through HELLBOY, Neil Marshall’s ersatz “let’s-keep-the-property-rights-going” version of Guillermo Del Toro’s version of Mike Mignola’s Satan-spawn comic book superhero, that is good enough to make you realize how much you hate the rest of it. It involves Hellboy, played by David Harbour under mounds of rubbery red latex, visiting a writhing, twisted demon-hag named Baba Yaga. She’s played by the actor and contortionist Twisty Troy (a.k.a. Pretzel Jack, from the last season of CHANNEL ZERO) as some sort of slippery, extreme-haunt version of a James Wan pop-up ghoul. With her one eye, leathery grey skin, dual peg legs and slithery, insinuating voice brought to life with mellifluous physicality by Troy, she’s an unnerving creation — and the only thing in HELLBOY to make an impression. There’s an impressive cavalcade of monsters in Marshall’s hellzapoppin’ creature-palooza, but they are all subsumed by what feels like the product of a lawyer’s meeting with the producers over how not to let the Hellboy slip through their fingers.
I knew something was up with this version of HELLBOY as soon as I walked into the theater. The opening scene is a prologue, shot in silvery black and white with splashes of red, involving the origin story of our film’s big bad, an evil witch-queen played with one-dimensional imperiousness by veteran schlock-action star Milla Jovovich, who wants to literally unleash hell on Earth. She’s vanquished by King Arthur and his magical sword Excalibur, but as we all watch this happening, we’re also being told what is happening via a narration by that reliable velvet-voiced tough-guy ham Ian McShane. He’s playing this film’s version of John Hurt’s from the Del Toro film — Hellboy’s secret government agent human “father” — and by his second line in the film, he’s already dropping an F-bomb. It’s this version’s way of saying that this isn’t the HELLBOY you’ve come to know and love.
I doubt anyone is going to come to love this one, though. Much has been made of how this version of the character is closer to Mignola’s original comic-book vision of a hero borne from the depths of Hell, of how this film is the R-rated antithesis to Del Toro’s sanitized original film. It’s meant to be a gorier, darker, more adult — the kind of movie that says “fuck” right off the bat. That’s all well and good, but what about making it a good film? HELLBOY 2019 has naughty-child syndrome. There are F-words and briefly-flashed breasts and scores upon scores of scenes of extras being torn limb from limb, but they don’t exactly make for compelling cinema. This is grue-by-rote; there’s gallons of (badly CG’d) blood, but nothing pumping this film’s heart.
David Harbour takes over the role of Hellboy from Ron Perlman, and, on paper he seems like a good choice for the role. When Perlman took on the role, he was a long-time character actor with a distinctive face who relished the opportunity to take center stage, giving the crimson-hued demonic hero a vivacious, lived-in energy. Harbour has a great of the same lovable conviviality of Perlman, the kind of brute, man-ape appeal that allowed Perlman to give HB a warmth and good-humored twinkle-in-the-eye. Harbour has that in spades in his role of Sheriff Hopper on the Netflix hit STRANGER THINGS, but here, he comes off as a flatly one-note and unappealing hero. It doesn’t help that this version of Hellboy has been whittled down into the most uninteresting version of the character possible. Harbour is buried under mounds of blood-red prosthetics that lock him into a permanent scowl, and his performance takes off from that look – all grumbly, monotonous brood. Harbour’s Hellboy has been shorn of all his appealing traits — his love of cats, his love of sweets Even his few attempts at quips fall flat. He’s just an angry, petulant monster-hero bore.
The rest of the movie surrounding him is just as lifeless and mechanical. This is a rote monster bash. Marshall and his screenwriter, Andrew Cosby, trot out a parade of monsters, some of which have a tingly Eldritch creepiness (there’s a group of twisted Elder God kaijus who rise up on London at one point) and others that look like they would be rejects from your average episode of MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS (the movie spends too much with a goofy villainous hog-man sidekick), but even the good monsters fail to stick in the mind. There’s no real nightmare fuel, here, and also no fun. Hellboy and his allies battle these creatures in a series of clockwork dust-ups, but they are staged with little wit — or editorial finesse. Outside of a couple scenes that Marshall deigns to shoot in a single take, most of the fight scenes are cut up into incomprehensible blurs of motion, often augmented with some truly heinous CGI work.
Marshall and Cosby hammer through these scenes with little inventiveness or imagination. Everything feels soulless and empty and pat, as if churning out another HELLBOY was a chore for everyone involved. For two hours, the movie lumbers through action scene after action scene, spit-glued together by the usual hackneyed “evil being wants world domination” supernatural superhero plot. If HELLBOY feels like a throwback, its to the bad old days of stuff like SPAWN, the misbegotten 1997 music video hellscape based on the Todd McFarlane character. HELLBOY is bad, but it’s not interesting bad. It’s mechanical “let’s-extend-the-life-of-this-IP” bad. And for that I can say: Go to hell.
Tags: Brian Gleeson, Comic Books, Comics, Daniel Dae Kim, Dark Horse Comics, David Harbour, Hell, Hellboy, Ian McShane, Joel Harlow, Kristina Klebe, Mario de la Rosa, Mark Stanley, Mike Mignola, Milla Jovovich, Monsters, Neil Marshall, Penelope Mitchell, Sasha Lane, Sophie Okonedo, Stephen Graham, Superheroes, Thomas Haden Church, Troy James