Straight away in the first two scenes Hellboy tells you exactly what it is. First we get a massive backstory dump of Arthurian myth to set up Milla Jovovitch’s Big Bad that isn’t all that different from the one at the beginning of recent family fantasy film The Kid Who Would Be King, except here they make sure to open on a crow eating an eyeball and Ian McShane saying the F-word to make you aware that this is very much not a family film. Then we get an action scene to introduce us to our titular Hellboy which at first looks like it could be fun, being based on a great short story from the comics Hellboy in Mexico, but just ends up being a jumble of choppy editing and bad CGI.
In two scenes, Hellboy tells you what it is; telling us rather than showing us the story and action scenes that don’t work, all while hinting at something that could be really good and interesting but ultimately failing to deliver.
Hellboy (David Harbour) is the world’s greatest paranormal investigator, working for the BPRD and his adoptive father Professor Bruttenholm (Ian McShane) to track down supernatural threats and eliminate them. The Blood Queen Nimue (Milla Jovovitch) has been resurrected and threatens all of humanity with her dark power. Together with hardened soldier Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim) and spirit medium Alice Monaghan (Sasha Lane) Hellboy must stop the apocalypse, but what if the cause of everyone’s doom is his own demonic nature?
It’s just a complete mess, that’s honestly the only way to say it. Visually it’s just bland and murky with choppy editing so in the actions scenes you can barely tell what’s going on, whenever the music kicks in it is so loud it drowns out dialogue and you can barely hear what people are saying, although even if you could that wouldn’t be much help because the script is flat, full of stock lines, and absolutely devoid of character. Scenes just sit awkwardly next to each other with no sense of pacing or flow.
The real root of the film’s problem is that there is no real sense of character personality. The characters of the films may as well be action figures for how much of an emotional impact they have. Whilst Guillermo del Toro’s 2004 Hellboy was a departure from Mike Mignola’s work in a lot of ways, it dedicated a lot of itself to shaping the characters and the world, showing the monsters as people, and audiences were really able to engage with that and care about them. Here there is none of that and it makes the film feel hollow. David Harbour’s Hellboy is meant to be younger, more rougher and untested, than Ron Perlman’s take on the character, but whilst he gets a few fun wry jokes out he ends up being nothing special. The rest of the cast try their best with what they have, but that can only get them so far. Sasha Lane is a wonderful young actress, but here whilst there are moments of charm she also sounds very stilted in her delivery. Even Ian McShane’s charisma counts for very little here and his character may as well have been named Mentor Figure. Side characters show up for a scene and then are gone with little reason or purpose to begin with. The only two people that seem to be having a good time or have any genuinely level of sincerity are Milla Jovovitch as the Blood Queen Nimue, and Steven Graham voicing a pig-headed fairy creature henchman. Baba Yaga was at least suitably freaky, but that’s the closest this gets to any real horror pedigree.
Mike Mignola was apparently more involved in the production of this film than previous ones and said that it’s closer to his comics, but apart from the plot being taken more closely from the comics, including some stories like the aforementioned Hellboy in Mexico that I love, I cannot see where that is the case as it has none of the charm or atmosphere that makes those comics such a memorable mixture of pulp detective and Lovecraftian terror. I forsee that this will also be a film where the cast and producers will soon be claiming that the film is “for fans, not for critics” as a means of covering up for its shortcomings and implying that anyone who takes issue with the film can’t be a real Hellboy fan, but as a fan of the Hellboy comics I honestly couldn’t tell you who this film is for other than people who believe that mature storytelling means swearing and throwing CGI gore at the screen, but both Hellboy himself and his fans deserve better.
Hellboy is by no means the worst comic book movie in existence, but you’d be better off getting a few of the comic book omnibus editions instead.