Rebooting a comic franchise is always a tricky business. Fanboys will resist claiming the original is better, and they will almost certainly bash any and all casting news if it isn’t exactly what they think, will work. Hellboy (2019) fails to capture anything enjoyable from the previous two Hellboy films directed by Guillermo Del Toro, all while managing to feel more like a modern B-movie that may crush a few careers in its wake. There are a few things to latch onto, but the weak script offers little more than a series of vignettes barely connected together and is overstuffed with generic bad guys who mean nothing to non-Hellboy readers. This film is a big swing-and-a-miss, which is disappointing to hear during the huge upswing in solid comic book movies.
Hellboy could have been a solid reboot, but it left me wanting to rewatch its predecessor.
The film doesn’t waste time building the cheesy storytelling, choosing to begin with a black and white flashback to introduce the antagonist of the film. The witch Nimue (Milla Jovovich), a.k.a. “The Blood Queen”, is attempting to cast a spell that will wipe out humanity, but King Arthur (Mark Stanley) and his wizard companion Merlin (Brian Gleeson) have requested a peace talk in order to negotiate a surrender. What makes this scene particularly cheesy is the voiceover narration, which is basically just describing exactly what is on the screen at that moment, making it feel pointless and trite. It is not a feature that is returned to, which makes it stand out as a poor choice or lack of trust in the audience’s ability to follow the visual storytelling. Arthur uses his legendary sword, Excalibur, to hack the witch into pieces, subsequently locking the parts into individual caskets and hiding them away so she can’t reassemble herself.
Then, we cut ahead to the modern day…Hellboy (David Harbour) is on a retrieval mission for the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense to find missing agent Esteban Ruiz. A bad recurring gag that Hellboy is too strong (or that iPhone screens break too easily) is introduced, as he hangs up on Professor Broom (Ian McShane), his foster father, refusing to heed his warnings. Ruiz has been turned by vampires – one of the far too many monsters thrown into this film – and attacks his friend. There is little emotional weight here (a trend the rest of the movie will follow), as we only know about their relationship through weak expositional dialogue. Ruiz warns of the impending apocalypse and seems to point his finger at Hellboy as the cause.
This leads to one of the most significant problems that many of the comic book movies that have failed keep doing: making the stakes too large. Suicide Squad (2016) is the glaring example of a movie that doesn’t understand the benefits of a smaller story. Yes, Hellboy is a demon summoned by Nazi’s, so the apocalypse angle will always work. However, the best parts of Hellboy are small character moments. In Guillermo del Toro’s version, it is the relationships with the other characters that take center stage. In Neil Marshall’s take, the character moments are all given through poorly constructed conversations which are delivered between poorly designed CG action setpieces. So much time is dedicated to wasted moments with random monsters, rather than giving a solid A-story with characters we are rooting for.
McShane gives a committed performance, but working off of Harbour’s Hellboy never really lands an emotional resonance. Hellboy sounds like an angsty teenager, and since all of their struggles are simply told to us rather than shown, the moments never really click emotionally. This becomes even more apparent when Alice shows up, played by the incredible indie-darling Sasha Lane. Alice is a character that has a clear history with Hellboy and is apparently a very powerful spirit medium. Most of the initial sequence during this scene is an odd conversation that would have been way more interesting to show us…but the film doesn’t have time for that. It has constructed this over-bloated movie that can’t take the time to truly develop anything in a way that will resonate with audiences.
There is a wealth of blood and guts in the many action sequences throughout this film. The worst of these sequences, at least visually, is the fight with the giants. These CG monsters look bad (though you barely get a glimpse of them), and the camera is moving erratically to simulate the experience that Hellboy himself is going through. None of it works well, but it is possible that the whole experience tricks you into a dizzy euphoric feeling that resembles enjoyment. That is true for most of the “fun” parts of the movie. You have to be willing to laugh at some pretty dark violence and gore in order to take any real joy from an action sequence. By the end, a one-liner that sounds like it is straight out of an ‘80s action film caps the movie’s glut of garbage.
While it probably sounds like I hated the movie, it was more of an apathetic experience. I enjoyed a few moments of the movie, but many made me twitch with frustration. It is never easy watching a film and seeing instantly how it could have been improved with a few simple choices going in very different ways. Hellboy earns the Not a Total Waste of Time, but you may want to avoid it like Nimue’s plague.