It’s been over a decade since we last saw Hellboy on the big screen, and with fan favorites Guillermo del Toro and Ron Perlman gone, the reboot had a lot of work to do to convince fans that it was a worthy successor. To that end, the film landed itself an R-rating, adding to the growing number of superhero films that are looking to tackle more adult subject matter and themes.
But oddly enough, Hellboy barely seems to earn its rating for anything other than gore.
When the film opens in black and white, during the Dark Ages, with some stock-style battle footage of King Arthur and Merlin and the sorceress Nimue, you already know that you’re headed for something a tiny bit overwrought. What works in a comic book isn’t guaranteed to play out well on screen, and Hellboy is keen on proving that, one bad jump cut at a time.
If constant classic rock cues that barely earn out and blood’n’guts without creativity to back them up are your thing, Hellboy is very much up your street, and you should scurry to the theater immediately. If you’re a fan of the comics and want all films to adhere more to the basics of source material, you may also find yourself enjoying the film. (The plot is partly from the Darkness Calls and Wild Hunt storylines in the comics.) But the low-end budget and underuse of practical effects means that the CGI in Hellboy is muddy and cartoonish, and the editing, particularly on the action side, says nothing so much as Bad Late 90s Music Video. Gone is the imagination that del Toro brought to Hellboy’s world, the odd one-off puppets and gorgeous prosthetics and thoughtful design. This world is simply grotesque for cheap thrills, to the point where it ceases to have any effect on the viewer; if you’ve seen one (or eighteen) dismemberments, it’s hard to care much about the next one.
The core trio for the film—Hellboy (Stranger Things’s David Harbour), BPRD agent Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim), and Alice Monaghan (Sasha Lane)—are a charming trio overall, but there are too many kinks to work out in the rest of the film to allow them breathing room in their roles. Harbour’s Hellboy is appropriately sardonic yet kind, but he never gets a chance to build the character to a truly meaningful crescendo because the movie is too bogged down with its deeply boring plot. Lane is enjoyable as Alice if you can ignore the fact that her English accent comes nowhere close to the real thing (she’s from Texas), and Kim is endearingly grumpy as Ben Daimio. Unfortunately, the film insists on building a flirtation between the two, which is deeply unsettling when it’s obvious that Kim is much older than Lane—she’s twenty-three years old and he’s fifty, making him over double her age.
Without all that awkwardness, the group could have been a thoroughly enjoyable monster-fighting crew, but the movie wastes too much time on eye-gouging giants and tongue-kissing Baba Yaga (yup) to give them the time they deserve to cohere. Instead, the film prefers to spend its emotional lot on Hellboy’s relationship with his adopted father Trevor Bruttenholm, played by Ian McShane at his most bored and distracted. It’s the typical father-son dynamic that always gets played up in these stories: Bruttenholm wasn’t a great dad, but of course he loves his son, no matter how grumpy said son is about said bad parenting. Obviously, no father can be held accountable for being a terrible parent because… because he eventually acknowledges it? That’s growth, right? The movie certainly thinks so, when it’s not busy letting weird CGI monsters rip people in half above the Tower Bridge in London.
Hellboy treats most of the women in it with absolute contempt, the majority of them maimed, tortured, brutalized, evil, or some combination thereof. Milla Jovovich is wasted as Nimue the Blood Queen, failing utterly to be menacing because the movie is more interested in tracking shots of her gauze-covered body than it is in giving her anything remotely interesting to do. What’s more, her whole plot line is couched in “needing” a king, making her desire to bring Hellboy over to the side of darkness a complete undercut of her supposed sinister abilities. With that undercurrent in the background, the film’s themes are careless and come off far worse than the script may have intended—namely the seeming commentary that no woman can have power without male sanction and attention, and the idea that all Hellboy needs to do into order to be a hero rather than a demon is simply “man up.”
When the movie locates its sense of humor on occasion, it sparks with fun, but no sooner does Hellboy find those moments then it delves back into the sort of comedy that most people found funny when they were thirteen and angry at the world. There’s no driving force, no cohesive style, no through line that can draw it together. Just a muddle of poor special effects, and a soundtrack that believes it can infuse the film with attitude—while simultaneously pointing out just how little attitude the film actually possesses. It’s hard to care about a world that Hellboy and his friends are intent on saving, when most of what we see of it is cruel and dull and gray. The end of the movie seems like it’s trying to prove that the world of the first Hellboy film could be right around the corner, maybe ready in a sequel… but it comes far too late to be convincing.
Darkness isn’t inherently joyless, but that’s just what the current Hellboy seems to posit. Without love for grimmer things in life, all the movie has to offer is blood and bile and streets full of smeared intestines—and there are so many more enjoyable ways to spend a day.