HELLBOY Review: Something Came from Hell, Alright

Hellboy 2019 Poster.jpg

The first thing you’ll see in Neil Marshall’s Hellboy reboot is a raven plucking an eye from the skull of a rotten corpse, in excruciating close-up. One of the first things you’ll hear in Neil Marshall’s Hellboy reboot, via anachronistic, indifferent voiceover explaining what happened to said corpse in the distant past, is an f-bomb. Not even five seconds of the film has gone by before what was likely intended as a provocation - an establishment of purpose and differentiation from the rest of its ilk - has made it abundantly clear the realm of infantile nonsense the following two hours will be operating in.

That would be the realm where goopy digital gore and casual, needless profanity still register as transgressive and edgy but here only inspire an eyeroll and a witheringly disappointed “oh, honey…” It’s the realm of the teenage edgelord and the ten-year-olds that want to be him, blasting heavy metal and insisting how hardcore they are while downing the Hot Pockets their mom made for them. “We’re rated R now,” it says, “and we’re gonna rub it all in your stupid face.” If you listen closely, you can sometimes hear the mom calling the movie downstairs to take out the trash.

Maybe that tone is more in line with the Mike Mignola comics that serve as the film’s source. I would hope not, but if so, it’s a wonder Guillermo Del Toro found anything human or palatable to mine from them. Both Del Toro’s films and this reboot chronicle the adventures of Hellboy, a demon summoned from Hell by Nazis as an infant, then raised by agents at the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense to fight monsters and the supernatural. Hellboy 2019 assumes some prior familiarity from the audience by beginning in media res as Hellboy (Stranger Things’ David Harbour) looks for, and then fights, a fellow agent who’s been transformed into a CGI vampire.

The specifics of the plot from there are difficult to adequately summarize, both because so much happens and so little of it is of actual importance. The key threat involves an ancient witch named Nimue (Milla Jovovich) whose scattered body parts are being reassembled, threatening to bring about the end of the world by way of the Black Plague. Rehashing a bit from the previous films, there’s also the concern about Hellboy’s presumed destiny as the King of Hell and harbinger of the apocalypse, a potentiality for which almost everyone he encounters in the film seems to want him dead.

The film is full of incident but unbearably light on meaning. Nearly every scene that isn’t founded on oozing bodily fluids and graphic dismemberment follows a certain structure: Hellboy arrives at a place; people monologue about some backstory minutiae you’re gonna forget in five minutes; he cracks an aloof joke about the seriousness with which that information is being given to him; the monologue continues; then somebody dies violently. The script is a firehose of exposition and world-building detail, numbing and incessant in its relentless forward momentum. And because there was never a scene screenwriter Andrew Cosby didn’t think would be improved with a flashback, we get frequent interruptions to explain other stuff that has nothing to do with the plot or whatever the scene beforehand was moving toward. Despite that assumed familiarity with the material, the movie bends over backwards to explain itself at every turn and neglects any actual storytelling, and then has the audacity to treat the audience like it’s too cool for everything it so painstakingly spells out.

Neil Marshall

David Harbour
Milla Jovovich
Sasha Lane
Ian McShane
Daniel Dae Kim

Screenplay by
Andrew Cosby

I don’t begrudge David Harbour the task of trying to follow up Ron Perlman’s iconic work in the Del Toro films. He aims for cool, sarcastic detachment but comes across as snotty and abrasive, and he isn’t helped by a fundamentally cheap and ugly prosthetic make-up job that renders his face mostly immobile. The character has a whole dynamic with an over-protective and mercurial father figure, played by Ian McShane trying desperately to class up the place like he normally does, that really brings out the snot-nosed brat vibe in the film. Indie darling Sasha Lane is fundamentally too dynamic a performer for this D-grade superhero material and seems lost most of the time trying to find an emotion that’s real. Playing the villain, Jovovich normally would bring a spark of fun to something of this silly caliber but her character is just as dull and lifeless as everything else.

The film’s other mode of operation when not exploding its expository excrement across the walls is gratuitous violence, and this would be where you’d think director Neil Marshall’s history with visceral gore and action would work in the movie’s favor. But the substantially lower budget is evident almost everywhere, from hallway shootouts shrouded in darkness to a battle with giants assembled with the best digital compositing and green screen fifty bucks could buy. The design of the creatures and effects seems to be emulating Del Toro’s work, but he had a love and empathy for his monsters and goop that isn’t present here, and thus becomes merely gross for the sake of shock value. The chief offender here is a series of giant demonic creatures summoned during the climax that are obviously influenced by the Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth, but the cheap effects and bad editing transform them into Baby’s First Vagina Monster. That happens often with the movie. There are some genuinely insane concepts at play at times; for example, just try to forget the sight of a gelatinous insectoid ghost lady erupting from the mouth of a psychic. But the impact is always undermined by both the production’s lack of a budget and general adolescent posturing.

If there’s a worse version of this movie, I can’t picture it. Hellboy is a grotesque, repugnant, tedious, boring, puerile mess, with a visual and aesthetic ugliness to match its bad attitude. I’d say it should be banished back to Hell where it came from, but that would be treating the film with a seriousness it hasn’t earned, in a sense validating its cries for attention. I think a nice grounding should do instead. Send it to its room to let it think about what it’s done.

Hellboy is currently playing in theaters everywhere