Imagine, if the Hellboy movie of 2004 wasn’t the very good one directed by Guillermo del Toro that spawned an even better sequel a few years later. Instead, imagine if Hellboy 2004 was more akin to other action-horror movies of its time, perhaps directed by Len Wiseman or Paul W.S. Anderson or, even more appropriately, if Stephen Norrington had taken on Hellboy as his next project after the reviled League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
In such an alternate universe, the Hellboy of 2004 would be indistinguishable from the Hellboy of 2019: a soulless, noisy, mess of a movie that has far more in common with lesser Underworld or Resident Evil sequels than it does with the works of Guillermo del Toro or Mike Mignola. Packed to the rafters with mediocre special effects, unspectacular CGI characters, and spectacularly bad dialogue, the Hellboy reboot appears to have crawled from the recent (and lousy) blockbuster past, yet still finds room to indulge some of the worst instincts of modern franchise starters and superhero movies.
Hellboy (a perfectly cast David Harbour) is already a well established paranormal investigator in this movie. During a mission which reveals elements of his origin story that he wasn’t previously aware of, he runs afoul of Nimue (Milla Jovovich), the titular Blood Queen who wants to bring all the dark and monstrous things of the world back out into the light. Hellboy’s reluctant allies include Alice Monaghan (Sasha Lane), a budding spirit medium, and Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim), a special operative with little time for Hellboy’s antics. Other than the origin tweaks and the stylistic differences, there’s little reason this film couldn’t be viewed as merely a sequel to the previous films, and there’s something to be said for trying to explore more of the character’s considerable comic book history. The movie features no fewer than three flashback sequences, and they hardly feel like part of the same film, one of which sets up the titular Blood Queen’s story with some awful narration and weirdly stylized black and white cinematography. It does little to cement her as a particularly interesting or sympathetic villain, and Jovovich’s Nimue spends the rest of the movie speaking entirely in harsh, stage-whispered exposition.
And while the movie should be applauded for trying to forge its own path, it would help if it was actually a better movie. Of course Guillermo del Toro’s shadow is a long one. The director’s lush, inimitable style makes him one of the great genre auteurs. del Toro swapped some of the horror in his movies for an almost fairy tale whimsy at times, so the stated mission to make something a little more purely horror, and perhaps a little closer to the darkness and grit of the Mike Mignola Hellboy comics, was a fair and admirable one. Picking a director like Neil Marshall, helmer of near-perfect werewolf movie Dog Soldiers, genuine modern horror classic, The Descent, and two of the best action-focused episodes of Game of Thrones (“Blackwater” and “The Watchers on the Wall”) seemed an inspired choice to carry out that plan, as was the casting of Stranger Things star David Harbour in the title role.
And yet somewhere between concept and execution, things went horribly wrong. For starters, it all looks so dreadful with half thought out CGI monsters instead of the Eldritch horrors that spring effortlessly from Mignola’s pencil, and frantically edited, mean-spirited violence taking the place of anything resembling coherent action. One sequence with Hellboy taking on a gruesome vision of the Baba Yaga likely imagines itself Raimi-esque in its approach but is instead just another murkily lit slugfest with a rubbery, Halloween-masked foe, while a long take battle with three giants was likely meant as some kind of showcase, but is instead just one more messy, headachey wreck.
The screenplay by Andrew Cosby is full of miserable dialogue like “Google translate that for me” and “if my face could talk, it would disagree with you.” Hardly any jokes land, despite Harbour’s savvy comedic timing and easy charisma. When not even Ian McShane, the undisputed champion of elevating cranky, profanity-laden dialogue to Shakespearean heights can help, you know there’s trouble. McShane’s Professor Bruttenholm provides a much more “tough love” father figure than what we’ve seen from that character in previous movies, but the teenage angst and daddy issues between him and Hellboy are tedious and drag things to a halt.
Fortunately, David Harbour is unsurprisingly great as Hellboy, inhabiting the role as effortlessly and convincingly as Ron Perlman did, trading Perlman’s world weary cool for something a little more volatile and spiky, but clearly recognizable as the character. Even under 30 pounds of impressive makeup and prosthetics, the same sympathetic charm that rocketed Harbour to stardom as Sheriff Hopper on Stranger Things is on clear display here, and were this a better movie, it would be a real joy to watch him headline an entire franchise. Whatever happens to Hellboy’s live action prospects after this movie is forgotten, Harbour deserves another crack at the role.
The movie’s best scene, the one that I really wish had set the actual tone for the rest of the movie, comes very early on. Hellboy arrives in Tijuana on a search and rescue mission for a missing BPRD agent and finds himself embroiled in a wrestling ring with a vampiric luchador. The match fully embraces all of the lunacy that concept promises. But as the scenes that follow fail to live up to that promise, you may find yourself daydreaming (as I did) what a Hellboy and the BPRD procedural might look like on Netflix. The production values would probably be better.
The Hellboy comic book mythos are vast, spanning over 25 years, hundreds of issues, and a host of BPRD related spinoffs. Scholars of Hellboy lore may find more to like in this movie, which appears to do its very best to get notable characters and names dropped wherever it can (including Thomas Haden Church in a thoroughly unnecessary cameo as the superheroic Lobster Johnson). But more likely, they’ll be just as turned off by the unattractive visuals, joyless script, and ridiculous CGI blood splatter.
“Psychic migraine…it’s like a car crash in my head,” Sasha Lane’s Alice exclaims at one point, in yet another sparkling example of this screenplay’s mastery of the English language. “Something terrible happened here.”
Yeah. It sure did.
Hellboy opens on April 12.