There’s great movies, good movies, and bad movies. Somewhere in been good and bad is junk food cinema, which you probably call a “guilty pleasure.” Junk food cinema is a movie you have playing in the background while you work and look up to watch during fun scenes. Hellboy is junk food cinema at best. It only needs to be watched for its delicious visuals, and not the stupid plot that involves, yes, Merlin, King Arthur, and Excalibur.
The new film stars the delightful David Harbour as the severed-horned titular antihero with a big red right hand who investigates and fights the paranormal as well as his inner demons. His dad (played by the always great Ian McShane) saved baby Hellboy long ago from the Nazis (who were trying to take over the world by summoning Hellboy) and kept him around to fight the paranormal and learn to be a good … guy? Well, the paranormal has other plans, as they need Hellboy to take over or destroy the world, I’m unsure which. Added to that, the paranormal who need him are also trying to kill him, and Hellboy needs King Arthur’s sword to decide if he wants to become what he was born to be — evil — or stay good for mankind. Hello? Are you still with me? Oh yeah, and Milla Jovovich co-stars in a blink-and-miss role as The Blood Queen — the original title of the movie that was changed because the producers forgot this was a movie and made too many damn changes.
This ultra-sensationalism of the plot is the product of producers Lawrence Gordon and Lloyd Levin coming in and fucking everything up, which is typical Hollywood hoopla when a director doesn’t get complete creative freedom. This makes me feel sad for Neil Marshall, because he’s previously made three exceptional films (The Descent, Dog Soldiers, Doomsday) on his own terms, and for Harbour, because this was his shining moment in cinema. This is a real bummer because Marshall and Harbour will take the fall in the public eye while Gordon and Levin sit back and collect their paychecks.
Other than the Hollywood machine tampering, the movie has a plague of problems. It’s loosely taken from Hellboy creator Mike Mignola’s The Wild Hunt and The Storm and the Fury storylines, but feels like five different plots and movies. Its weakness is its rough, uneven pace. The editing is a disaster, and editor Martin Bernfeld shouldn’t take full blame for this because he had the heavy task of making a coherent movie by piecing together scenes shot for probably different storylines that clearly changed during production. Did he succeed? No. Was it his fault? Not really. Hellboy is not Neil Marshall’s movie, or anyone else’s. It would not be surprising if he soon John Woos it and goes back to his native country.
Another major flaw is its tone. It’s not sure if it wants to be a horror film or a horror-comedy. One minute Hellboy is asking, “Is that my Uber driver?” and fighting demons who look like they came straight from the set of Evil Dead II, carrying their cheesy lines and all. The next, demons are ripping apart humans, and blood is spraying on the camera.
Harbour’s appeal shines through on Stranger Things, but this film doesn’t give him enough freedom to show he can be a charming dick, one of Hellboy’s signature trademarks. Harbour gets some good quips in, but most of his dialogue with plagued with cheesy dialogue I don’t think any version of Hellboy would say.
The film does have a few things going for it. It really goes for that hard R-rating and is violent as hell, often to the point of disgusting — horror fans should be pleased with this. The movie is also visual beast with good CGI and makeup. I was worried Harbour would look and feel just like Ron Perlman’s Hellboy, but there’s not much of a trace of that here. Harbour makes the character his own with the limits he was given.
Here’s the thing, Hellboy as a movie doesn’t work. As we learned from Guillermo del Toro’s excellent Hellboy and Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (both starring the brooding Perlman as the demonic antihero), which both garnered critical acclaim but bombed at the box office; Hellboy doesn’t have a demographic in cinema. The movies appeal neither to kids nor to fans of the graphic novels nor to fans of del Toro. (If you’re not in the latter camp, shame on you.) This new Hellboy goes for the hard R-rating and cuts out teens wanting to see a PG-13 movie, so it’s already ice-skating uphill before it released.
Hellboy sets up for a sequel, but this would-be franchise isn’t going anywhere, not anytime soon at least. I don’t want to call it “bad” and undercut the meaning of bad, so how about Hellboy is fucking awful? Delicious visuals can’t save this movie from a savage cinematic death. To quote The Clash, Hellboy can go straight to hell, boy.
Starring David Harbour and Ian McShane. Directed by Neil Marshall. Written by Andrew Cosby, based on Mike Mignola’s comic series. Rated R.