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Guillermo del Toro made a pair of Hellboy movies with Ron Perlman as the title character in 2004 and 2008, respectively. While they were by no means box offices blockbusters, both films dealt with themes of forging your own destiny, the death of fantasy, good vs. evil, and the idea of family and friends with beautifully realized, profound storytelling. They featured nuance, strong ethos, subtle pathos, breathtaking effects, and darkly gorgeous filmmaking.
Neil Marshall’s newest reboot of the character, again simply titled Hellboy, is like if a heavy-metal-loving 11-year-old jacked up on Mountain Dew tried to tell you those two same stories, only smashed together into one film with too many new characters, offputtingly gross creatures, and barrels of blood. It is very hard, practically impossible, to not compare del Toro’s films with Marshall’s. After all, where del Toro’s films were dark, gothic fairy tale versions of comic book movies, Marshall’s is essentially violently airbrushed van art brought to life. The difference in approach is, to say the least, jarring.
I’m not kidding when I say this newest Hellboy takes many of the themes and ideas of the original two and tries to cram them into one film. From a plot perspective, Hellboy finds the titular hero sent overseas to London to help stop an ancient evil sorceress known as the Blood Queen from being resurrected and bringing about the end of the world. Along the way there are many characters introduced, then given flashbacks. God, there are so many flashbacks. There are also giants, treacherous secret societies, a child-eating Baba Yaga, and alternate dimensions thrown into the mix as well.
David Harbour plays Hellboy in a complete different light than Perlman did previously. Harbour’s Hellboy is still sarcastic, but is more in a teenage manner rather than a cynical adult. He gets in some decent one-liners and plays well through the layers of makeup, but sometimes his performance boils down to one of two modes: gruff, mumbling smart ass, or screaming, flustered smart ass. It’s entertaining, but not exactly subtle work. Ian McShane is also pretty great as Hellboy’s hard-nosed adoptive father and handler Trevor Bruttenholm. He gets to chew through exposition and boss people around, and seems to be having a great time doing it.
Everyone else in the film ranges from ‘fine’ to ‘forgettable’. Milla Jovovich is serviceable as the Blood Queen while Sasha Lane and Daniel Dae Kim are fairly bland as Hellboy’s agency sidekicks. At least Dae Kim has a good character design, with gnarly scars that run down his face distracting from his magical disappearing/reappearing British accent.
The worst part about Hellboy is that any praise that I can possibly heap on it is almost always followed by a ‘but…’. David Harbour’s performance is entertaining, but it’s not very subtle and everyone else is a wash. The same can be said for the filmmaking and storytelling as well.
Director Neil Marshall burst onto the horror scene with a one-two combo debut of Dog Soldiers and The Descent, two high-quality genre films that very effectively creepy as they were violent and gory. His direction here, however, is overshadowed by the sheer amount of STUFF they try packing into this movie. Focusing purely on action, it ranges from solid sequences such as an opening fight with a luchador vampire, to badly composed special effects showcases like a ‘single shot’ fight between Hellboy and three giants that teeters on the edge on unwatchable. Other sequences are edited so quickly or lit so dimly that you can barely tell what is going on.
The makeup effects on Harbour’s Hellboy are decent and definitely more realistic and grungy than del Toro’s take on the character. As a matter of fact, the entire film is filled with grotesque creatures and violence that are almost unpleasant to watch. It’s important to note that gross creatures and excessive violence CAN be fun on the big screen, but it’s a careful balance of character design and visual effects. Hellboy lacks that balance.
There is a sequence where Hellboy visits a supernatural Russian being known as a Baba Yaga that is so gross I was shocked enough to turn away for a moment. Another character has the ability to resurrect spirits by letting a disgusting tendril of ectoplasmic goo vomit forth from their mouth. Heads and limbs are chopped off, people are ripped to pieces, and it all feels so gratuitous in a way I’ve rarely felt at a movie theater. Again, it’s almost like the 11-year-old Mountain Dew chugging lunatic just keeps yelling at you, “AND THEN, a demon comes out and rips this dude in half AND THEN someone has their face peeled off AND THEN…”
All of these things, if we’re being honest, might be excusable if Hellboy had anything interesting or new to say, but unfortunately it just plays the hits of the previous two films in less effective, compressed ways that remove any satisfaction or impact.
The original Hellboy dealt with him coming to grips with who he was as a person. He was brought into this world by evil Nazi magic and then adopted to be raised as a force for good. It played with his morality and attempted to get him to turn back over to the dark side, teasing his actual turn to evil momentarily before bringing him back to the side of good. The sequel gave the character more depth, having him question his role as a weapon being used to snuff out fantastical creatures in a world that was losing magic. It was a bold move to have the hero kill off a seemingly benevolent elemental creature and then have the villain question why he would fight for humans which seek to rid the world of these beautiful creatures.
This film takes all of those elements, shoves them in with origin story flashbacks for no less than FIVE characters, as well as shoehorning in a King Arthur element. I’m all for seeing Harbour’s Hellboy reacting to the lunacy around him with incredulity and frustration, but there is just too much of it happening in the films 121 minute run time.
Hellboy just feels like too much, and none of it lands with any impact. The direction and editing are hyperactive, and aside from Harbour and McShane, none of the performances are really worth anything. It winds up being an unfortunate, pale imitation of what the character can offer, and a huge step down considering what has come before.
The Final Pop
Neil Marshall’s Hellboy gets a decent lead performance for David Harbour, and that’s about it. While your mileage may vary on the excessive violence, grotesque creatures, and poorly rendered action, we can likely agree that this is a massive step down from where the character has been before.