“I’d prefer a prophecy with smaller and more relatable stakes,” deadpans David Harbour’s Hellboy, during one of many exposition scenes in Neil Marshall’s reboot of Guillermo del Toro’s Dark Horse comics adaptation. It’s a line, like Jean Grey’s “the third one is always the worst” comment in X-Men: Apocalypse, that is just begging to be picked out by film fans and chucked back in the movie’s face.
Given that Lionsgate handed the reins of this fiery franchise to a Game Of Thrones alum like Marshall (who helmed two important episodes of HBO’s fantasy hit during its most cash-strapped years), you might expect this flick to angle itself in a more character-driven way, digging deep into the emotional conundrums of its hellspawn protagonist instead of concerning itself with epic spectacle. Smaller and more relatable stakes sound like a logical and loveable route for 2019’s Hellboy to take, but, sadly, that is not what this film goes for at all.
Instead, Marshall and his screenwriter Andrew Cosby shoot for the spectacular and miss that target by miles, serving up a continent-spanning tale of averting an apocalypse that fails to press any particularly personal buttons in any remotely remarkable ways. It’s a scattershot hodgepodge of a film, which lurches slowly between leaden dialogue scenes for most of its running time. The budget is clearly stretched thin, and the plotting isn’t smart enough to hide it.
Unlike Deadpool, which proved that you can edit around those tight purse strings and stretch out one major action scene to cover most of a film, Hellboy leaves huge gaps between its fighting sequences and offers little of interest in the gaps in between. Exposition is the order of the day, as characters talk around in circles and explain the same basic facts in numerous uninteresting ways. And, seeing as this is an R-rated film that kids won’t legally be allowed to see, there really is no need to talk down to the audience like this. It just feels like padding.
Characters chatting in movies can be great, of course, but Cosby’s script doesn’t give the cast much engaging material to work with here. Instead, they have to work around it: gamely trying to make an impact in the title role, David Harbour shouts as many of his lines as he can; attempting to offer something likeable as Hellboy’s adoptive dad, Ian McShane smears his charm all over his forgettable pep talks; Milla Jovovich tries for a wispy sort of villainy as the Blood Queen, but never really feels threatening; as Hellboy’s evil-fighting teammates, both Sasha Lane and Daniel Dae Kim try to deliver serious readings of nonsensical lines.
Here are some genuine lines from the film, presented without context, to give you an idea of just how much this talented cast is hamstrung by the words in their mouths: “They’re called the Dark Ages, for a fucking good reason”; “Is that my Uber?”; “A trio of giants are terrorising the New Forrest”; “It smashes things real good”; “Luckily, the legendary Nazi hunter, The Lobster, turned up”; “Since those fairies took me, I can do some weird shit”; “Google Translate that for me, would ya?”; “So I’m devil-spawn and a Nazi? Thanks, dad.”
Amidst this challenging script, the only actor that significantly stands out is Stephen Graham, who really commits to his talking pig-man character as he sucks up to Jovovich’s big bad and throws foul-mouthed insults at everyone else. Oh, and Laila Morse (Mo from EastEnders, and Gary Oldman’s sister) has a lot of fun with her cameo.
The film is a tonally bananas, jumping from primary-coloured giant hunts (where Brits on horseback wield Ghostbusters-esque proton packs) to creepy extradimensional worlds (where you see a few glimpses of Marshall’s horror experience attempting to burst through). Throughout, it’s clear that Marshall is a talented director. He stages gruesome material highly effectively, when he gets the chance. And when the big bouts go down, he rallies against CGI battle cliches by swooping the camera’s perspective around in unexpected ways. You remember, at this point, that he staged Game Of Thrones‘ Castle Black battle between the Night’s Watch and the Wildlings with real flair and expertise.
Harbour, too, shows glimpses of better stuff. He does more than simply looking the part, taking every chance for a wry facial expression or comical grunt. And he makes the most of some rare moments that let him riff on that machismo-deconstructing work that he did in Stranger Things. Sadly, though, there isn’t much of that, and he spends most of his time yelling. The film attempts to give its hero some emotional beats near the end, but they don’t land because they don’t feel earned. There’s also a bit where we briefly glimpse another possible reality, which looks a lot more fun than the one Harbour and Marshall actually had to work with.
This won’t go down in history as a great reboot, then. It’s a weird ride of a film, that isn’t sure if it wants to be a potty-mouthed Deadpool-aper or an epic fantasy story with the whole world at stake. What it ends up being is a jarring experience with way more bark than bite, and a movie that doesn’t garner enough goodwill for its bombardment of future teases at the beginning, middle and end of the credits. Rather than trying to launch a universe and throw everything at the wall, perhaps they should’ve listened to their hero and aimed for smaller and more relatable.