Cast: David Harbour, Milla Jovovich, Ian McShane, Sasha Lane, Daniel Dae Kim, Thomas Haden Church
Director: Neil Marshall
Writer: Andrew Cosby
Sometimes you’ve got to love Hollywood and their unfailing ability to learn the exact wrong lessons from whatever great success they want to capitalise upon next. Following the monumental success of the MCU, Warner Bros. and Universal sought to follow suit with their own franchises of interconnected films. What neither series appeared to anticipate was how difficult it actually is to make each title a distinct and satisfying film in its own right while still allowing it to serve a larger narrative. Although the DCEU films have gotten better, it is at least partly because the series has more or less abandoned the idea of tying them together. The Dark Universe meanwhile was dead on arrival when The Mummy, a movie that was dreadfully at odds with itself on every level, bombed with critics and audiences. Hellboy however is following the example of a different trend entirely, that of the R-rated superhero blockbuster. After Deadpool proved that such films could be monster hits and Logan proved that they could be critical darlings, the lesson they’ve taught Hollywood couldn’t be clearer: more swearing, blood and gore, and nudity equals ‘better’. Thus with a franchise that no longer has del Toro or Perlman attached and the R-rating that the pair never needed to make two great films, we get Hellboy, a big bloody mess both literally and figuratively.
Conceptually the Mike Mignola created character ranks amongst the most unique modern-day comic book heroes and a new Hellboy series could have made for a welcome break from the superhero routine Hollywood has fallen into. Instead the film staggers along without a trace of the personality rampant in the previous films, relying on ideas borrowed from other, better films. The opening prologue, detailing the defeat of the evil, bloodthirsty queen Nimue (Milla Jovovich) at the hands of King Arthur and the foretelling of her imminent return, feels like a half-arsed video game rehash of The Lord of the Rings, only with God of War levels of graphic violence. This sets up is followed with what almost plays out like an NSFW take on The Kid Who Would Be King as Hellboy (David Harbour) must embrace his destiny and rise to the task of combatting and vanquishing this Arthurian menace. The main difference is that more characters are bloodily decapitated while the F-word gets thrown around frequently and indiscriminately. Joining Hellboy for the ride are Alice (Sasha Lane), a clairvoyant with an unconvincing British accent and a past connection with the demonic hero, and Daimio (Danuel Dae Kim), a paranormal military specialist with an equally unconvincing British accent and some dark secret that will inevitably be revealed round about the third act.
Originally proposed as a sequel to The Golden Army until del Toro and his team dropped out, Hellboy is a hard reboot. Here the fiery, behemoth demon with his oversized rock-hard punching hand and filed-down head stumps where a pair of horns used to be is played by the star of Stranger Things while the director’s chair is assumed by Neil Marshall, director of The Descent and two all-time great episodes of Game of Thrones. Between the two of them there ought to be more than enough talent to make this superhero-fantasy romp work, but it wasn’t to be. The two previous films depicted Hellboy as this lovable outcast, as the heroes in del Toro’s films so often are; a tough guy and a wisecracker with a devil may care attitude, but ultimately a gentle soul who had to work as hard to battle his own inner demons as he did those supernatural monstrosities that threatened to destroy the world. This grittier, gorier title wants to offer a darker, more cynical spin on the character, which is fine as a concept, but what they lose in this iteration is Hellboy’s humanity. The film is so much more interested in depicting gruesome amputations and following them up with foul-mouthed one-liners that any kind of nuance the film wanted us to read into Hellboy’s character gets lost in the noise.
More’s the pity since Harbour does demonstrate some understanding of what his role is supposed to be about. His Hellboy appearance is a little less chiselled than Perlman’s, a little rougher around the edges, and some of the material he’s given almost manages to feel like it means something, especially when he’s interacting with his adoptive father Trevor Bruttenholm (Ian McShane), the leader of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defence that Hellboy works for. One source of conflict between them is how reluctant Hellboy is do battle with Nimue and her forces. As a demon who job is to kill other demons, it makes sense for him to lament the idea that every threat he faces must be met with violence and every foe eliminated. However, unlike the del Toro films which genuinely empathised with the creatures, even the villainous ones to some extent, and would treat their deaths with some degree of gravity and meaning, this one fails to live up to that theme. Instead it serves as mere lip-service that ends up adding to nought in the fight scenes where our crimson hero proceeds to massacre entire hordes of faceless creatures without a second thought. In truth the only purpose any of the plot serves is to provide the movie with some vague semblance of structure as it ravenously dashes towards the next gorefest with reckless abandon.
While the film does boast some visual flourishes in its action scenes and a few imaginatively designed creatures, as in one brief dream sequence where a fully demonised Hellboy rides atop a skeletal dragon, it gets exhausting after a while. The moviegoer can only take so much unyielding gratuity and Hellboy never lets up on that front. Excessively monotonous violence gets old if there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason behind it and Hellboy doesn’t offer any. All it offers is the same old tired superhero story we’ve seen dozens upon dozens of times before, just with an R-rated twist and not even an especially creative one at that. What makes Deadpool and Logan work where this film doesn’t is that they used the licence granted by their R-ratings to serve the stories and tones they were going for. Hellboy is so devoid of originality and inspiration that the excessive carnage and hardcore cussing come across more as desperate than anything, as if they realise on some level that they haven’t got anything worth a darn outside of it. The world didn’t need a new spin on this character when the last two films were as recent and as good as they were, but that didn’t mean this film couldn’t still be good in its own way. However, by trying as hard as it does to distinguish itself from what came before, the movie’s only success is proving its own futility.