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Neil Marshall’s Hellboy is a movie that was made with good intentions. It chose solid, twist-filled source material from the original comics as its story base; features some cool high-fantasy design; and it persistently tries to keep things feeling fun. Unfortunately, however, good intentions alone do not exclusively lead to a good finished product. Case in point, while all of those elements are positives going in, the film on the whole is convoluted and choppy in its storytelling; ultimately lacks the full resources that it needs to execute its vision; and has so many swing-and-miss jokes that you eventually almost want to chuckle out of sympathy for the poor thing.
A total reboot with zero affiliation with the Guillermo del Toro-directed films from the aughts, this new version of Hellboy tries to have its cake and eat it too – attempting to both be an origin story for the uninitiated, and simultaneously tell a story as though the titular hero is well established. As typically happens when a film tries to do too much, though, it becomes a messy piece of work that doesn’t seem quite sure what it wants to be or who it’s for. It’s essentially a mix of flashbacks, side adventures, and in-universe prophecy cobbled together as a movie that isn’t downright bad, but also definitely isn’t good.
Hellboy is written by Andrew Cosby and based on Mike Mignola and Duncan Fegredo's 2008/2009 arc "The Wild Hunt," but it’s hard to fully describe the narrative because it’s so all over the place. It starts with Hellboy (David Harbour) – a demonic hero fighting evil for the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (B.P.R.D.) – battling vampires in Mexico, but then after a brief return home to Colorado he heads off to England to help an ancient order hunt for a trio of giants.
Meanwhile, an ancient evil named Nimue The Blood Queen (Milla Jovovich) is being resurrected by having her long-separated and scattered body parts brought back together… but it’s important to note that is not an element of the plot the film has the protagonist engages with for most of the first hour. Instead, that time is primarily spent showcasing Hellboy’s World War II origins; explaining the global role of the B.P.R.D. and its leader/Hellboy’s father, Professor Broom (Ian McShane); telling the story of young psychic Alice Monaghan (Sasha Lane); and introducing the leads to prickly B.P.R.D. agent Major Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim).
And if you’re thinking that including all of that sounds like it probably doesn’t allow proper room for engagement with what should be the film’s central antagonist, you are entirely correct. Hellboy is a movie that manages to feel both rushed and sluggish at the same time, and the roots of that are in a script that is just all over the place.
Some stuff works in the story, and some stuff doesn’t – and the same could also be said about the movie’s aesthetic and design. Clearly the movie’s pride and joy is the look of David Harbour’s Hellboy, who does look legitimately incredible, as you never doubt its realism for a moment or see too much of the actor underneath. There is also some other great material from the comics brought to life in horrific-yet-wonderful fashion, such as the design of the monstrous and disgusting Baba Yaga (Troy James/Emma Tate). As great as those are, however, not everything is nearly as seamless, and there are clear spots that could have used additional resources or time. The pig-like Gruagach (Stephen Graham), who helps assemble Nimue, is the most glaring example, but the film also suffers whenever anything gets too big or epic, as its CGI really starts to show in a bad way.
Negative as the aforementioned elements are, however, nothing takes the wind out of Hellboy’s sails quite like the number of one-liners and “clever” bits that land with a dull thud and elicit far more eye rolls than laughs. And rather than being an issue with it trying to be too edgy or hip, the real problem is just that it’s not funny. It’s the equivalent of the guy at the party who thinks he’s the most hilarious dude in the room and just keeps rattling off zingers despite getting zero response from anyone around him – and nobody wants to be around that guy. You’d think that this would be something that could have been avoided/mended with the combination of alternate cuts and test screenings, plus maybe a little ADR, but it feels like nobody made the effort.
Hellboy is definitely a disappointment. As has been proven in the past, this is a character with a lot of big screen potential storywise, but the earlier movies suffered because they couldn’t find an audience, and this one suffers because it feels like it tried to throw everything at the wall in hopes of circumventing that same issue. It’s not a disaster, but with talent like Neil Marshall and David Harbour involved one expected better.