On paper, there’s a lot to like in Neil Marshall’s reboot of ‘Hellboy’ but its haphazard execution makes it feel numbing and exhausting.
Neil Marshall’s Hellboy actually does a good job in tempering your expectations as its problems become apparent right from the very start. It kicks off with a clunky prologue of King Arthur, Merlin & Co. thwarting the plans of Nimue a.k.a. the Blood Queen (Milla Jovovich) by hacking her body into bits and sealing them into separate enchanted caskets. This imaginative tie up to the known Arthurian legend is what makes Mike Mignola’s comics captivating. Granted that the hasty narration is an obvious attempt to keep the runtime down, you can easily forgive it. As it turns out, however, this relentless dry exposition will be your constant companion throughout. Hellboy drags its titular hero from one dangerous situation to next. It even bothers to explain the backstory of its supporting players, yet it fails to take pause for introspective character development. In effect, it does feel like reading a thick issue of comics. The film shoves so many storylines more so than it can chew.
What you need to know is that Hellboy (David Harbour) is a red incubus who ends up working with the good guys – the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD). He’s humanity’s only hope yet he’s also the prophesized bringer of apocalypse. Hence, he keeps snapping his horns to prevent summoning hellish fiends of all sorts. A seer named Lady Hatton (Sophie Okonedo) narrates his origin via flashback, which prominently features a vigilante in goggle shades (Thomas Haden Church) for no adequate reason. Apart from that, the film also narrates the origin of Hellboy’s psychic friend Alice Monaghan (Sasha Lane), as well as scar-faced military soldier Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim). Elsewhere, a hog-like fairy Gruagach (Stephen Graham/Douglas Tait) is tasked to gather Nimue’s body parts so that a very hideous looking Baba Yaga (Emma Tate/Troy James) can restore her and officially pursue her plans of world domination.
For a screenplay that’s written by one person (Andrew Cosby), Hellboy surprisingly feels dizzying and incoherent. Aside from its overstuffed plot, another sore eye here is its haphazard editing that fails to stitch things organically. With its loose connections, the film gives an impression of looking like a series of violent clips strung together by bland electric guitar riffs. Soon enough, it abandons character development to showcase everyone else has paid to see… fights with monsters. At one point, Hellboy mutilates giants with buckets of blood and guts pouring out from weightless CGI characters. You can easily remove this segment to achieve better pacing but hey, teenage boys must be pleased at this point so let’s keep it eh?
Harbour (of Stranger Things) is more than worthy to take up the horns as he makes the most of whatever he’s given. Being practically buried in layers of makeup, however, renders his face expressionless at some moments. As for the rest of the cast, they’re quite unremarkable. Superpowered sidekicks played by Lane and Kim are two-dimensional characters at best, and Jovovich, despite her striking screen presence, has not much to do but scowl at the camera and wait for a disappointing showdown at the end.
If there’s an edge that this version has over Guillermo del Toro’s is that it fully embraces the hard R horror elements of its source material. But to give justice to gratuitous violence is an entire different thing. The audiovisual chaos is loud and abrasive – beheadings, dismemberments, skewering, etc. I am willing to embrace all the hell-raising involved, had only the film actually earned it. Unlike Deadpool films that plays violence for a comic effect, Hellboy ultimately winds up closer to lesser films like Underworld and Resident Evil. What’s initially stirring gradually turns to numbing and exhausting.
Del Toro’s Hellboy films remain to be the superior version. It has grace and style, and most important of all, it has craftsman care for its story and its characters. Sure, Marshall’s reboot deserves to be judged on its own merits and in that regard, this one falls short in having an affecting emotional lynchpin, which could have been the relationship of Hellboy and his adoptive father (Ian McShane). It also could’ve mined more internal conflict – the Blood Queen wants to awaken Hellboy’s hidden potential as the demon king, yet not much energy is spent to attempt at such nuance.
There are some decent parts in Hellboy that can be salvaged. Taken as a whole, however, it just feels like an utter chore to sit through. Marked by unnecessary set-ups, incessant expositions and incoherent plot, the film sacrifices restraint for R-rated creativity and ambition. Most viewers certainly don’t come solely for uninspired gore.
2.5 out of 5 stars