As Merry-Go-Round’s resident Comic Book Guy, I should probably disclose that “Hellboy” is my favorite comic book of all time. So, in the interest of responsible journalism, I will make every possible effort to curb any biases I may have going in. Now that we have that out of the way, I’ll just come right out and say it: HELLBOY is a resounding failure in nearly every conceivable way.
If the film’s confused ad campaign wasn’t enough of a red flag, HELLBOY practically begs audiences to pay attention right out of the gate, opening on an eye dangling from the socket of a slain knight (which might have been cool, or even just grisly, enough to set the mood if the CGI wasn’t so terrible) as an oddly sardonic voiceover explains us into the Dark Ages (“called that for good fucking reason”). “Oh boy,” I remember thinking. “Here we go.” And oh boy, does it go. HELLBOY takes to its R rating like a teenager borrowing his dad’s car for the night. It’s loud, reckless, and goes way too damn fast, the result being one big mess that—while sad—is not all that surprising.
Oh, whoops, oooh
I’ve been waffling on writing this review not just because I’m a big fan of Hellboy, but because I’ve had a hard time pinning down just what went wrong with this movie (the writer and editors are REAL good places to start). However, I’ve come to realize it might be as simple as it’s just too much. You see, not only did screenwriter Andrew Crosby find it necessary to provide a far-reaching backstory to Hellboy’s run-in with a fifth-century sorceress, but he made sure King Arthur and Merlin were in there, too. Not to belabor a point, but that’s not even mentioning the vampires, secret societies, Nazis, trolls, fairies, changelings, spirits, witches, zombies, demons, and were-jaguars that pop up every few minutes. Yeah, all of that’s straight out of the comics, and comic book movies do have a tendency to leave fans hanging in the wind by not remaining faithful to the source material, but damn.
Hellboy’s creator, Mike Mignola, has painstakingly constructed his universe over the course of 25 years, weaving the most obscure bits of world religion and mythology into a backdrop of gothic and Lovecraftian horror (with some pulp thrown in for good measure, sure). His stories build on one another, they converge; the seeds planted along the way allowed time to pay off. That’s how Mignola has been able to pull off all that insanity up there. HELLBOY tries to do the same in two hours. As a result, the film plays out like a sugar-high child slamming action figures together. Scenes fly from frenzied CGI battles to exposition dumps, plot threads are dropped soon after they are introduced, characters come and go (or die), and it’s impossible to get emotionally invested in any of it as nothing is ever given time to breathe. Every directorial decision seems geared towards getting our hero from one bombastic set piece to the next.
I was going to make a Monster joke, but the movie did it for me
But HELLBOY isn’t just plagued by mere story issues, no. By doubling down on the Hard R line, Marshall and co. worked their film into a corner—probably the same corner 12-year-olds get put in after they’re kicked off X-Box Live, but I digress. The swearing is forced and often just doesn’t work. Double that for the attempts at humor which flail between groan and cringe. Then there’s the gore which quickly—and enthusiastically!—goes so far beyond the pale it loses any impact it could have had. This is made worse by the film’s inability (unwillingness?) to settle on a tone and that, by and large, the film’s countless victims are nameless/faceless schmoes who have absolutely no impact on the plot. Blood splatters, limbs fly, but it’s all just so much visual noise. Even when hell opens in the streets of London (lol spoilers) and a demon degloves a dude’s head right in front of the camera, there’s no feel for the stakes at all. It’s just senseless.
But you know what? I don’t really have the desire to shit on something and call it a wrap these days. Even for how stunningly, oppressively clumsy this film is, I still find myself wanting to give credit where credit is due. Yeah, yeah, I know it’s fun to pile onto a movie that’s getting blasted, but you know what’s even more fun? Hellboy wrestling a vampire luchador! And how about that Gruagach! That Baba Yaga! The monsters are pretty damn cool, yeah, but I’d even go so far as to say that this Hellboy looks way more badass than del Toro’s. I will never not be a sucker for killer practical effects and creature designs, and both are in rare form here. Joel Harlow’s FX team really brought the thunder this go around and they deserve the highest praise for elevating this otherwise wanting film with their excellent work.
Thanks, I hate it
The cast deserves credit, too. I know it’s going to sound like a backhanded compliment, but even with the corny dialogue, worse jokes, the fact that many character’s powers and motivations are not fully explained, and an absurd amount of the film happening in front of a green screen, they all do a pretty good job. I really liked Sasha Lane as Alice, and, goofy as it was, seeing Daniel Dae Kim turn into a were-jaguar was kinda rad. And of course there’s good old David Harbour. Despite all the internet’s clamoring for Ron Perlman to return, I think Harbour was an inspired choice for the role of Hellboy. Even so, try as he might, he just doesn’t have quite the same rough-hewn charm or machismo as Perlman. As awesome as he looks and for all the physicality he brings to the role, he’s just too, well, whiny (a word that gets thrown around a lot in the film) for the World’s Greatest Paranormal Investigator.
I had similarly high hopes for Milla Jovovich as Nimue the Blood Queen. Despite her typically playing a hero, I’ve always thought of her as having great potential as a villain, and it’s fun to see her try her hand at it. And while she certainly looks the part and does project a sense of regalness, it’s just plain weird to see this immensely powerful, vengeful witch lapse into forlorn, almost desperate moments—especially after she crumples bodies like she just strolled out of the Tanz Dance Academy. Say what you will about her acting chops, but I have to chalk that one up to lousy writing, too. Then again, I can’t help but think how the role would have been better served if she had taken an approach similar to Cate Blanchett as Hela in THOR: RAGNAROK, vamping up Nimue to match the material’s inherent campiness. But, hey, what do I know?
I did say it was goofy
It’s pretty clear that this movie was made with a very specific audience in mind and part of me really respects that, but—and I say this as a long-time fan of comics, metal, monsters, and pro wrestling—I’m not sure what that audience is. The film constantly references its source material, but doesn’t seem to really understand or even care about it, and it’s much too antagonistic for the average superhero moviegoer. Plus, you know, I imagine 13-year-olds would have a hard time getting in to see it. It just does too much without committing to any of it. The film does have its moments, which hint at what could have been a good movie, but they are few and far between in what unfortunately becomes a comedy of errors. I can see HELLBOY being more enjoyable after cracking open a couple beers, but that’s also a bit like saying a root canal is bettered by laughing gas.