Directed by Neil Marshall.
Starring David Harbour, Milla Jovovich, Ian McShane, Sasha Lane, Daniel Dae Kim, Stephen Graham, Sophie Okonedo, Alistair Petrie and Thomas Haden Church.
The titular demon turned paranormal investigator fights to prevent the return of the Blood Queen before she destroys mankind.
“It’s 517 AD,” intones the gravelly voice of Ian McShane in the opening voiceover of Hellboy, adding “known as the Dark Ages… and for fucking good reason”. A couple more curse words and a bloody dismembering later, director Neil Marshall has made something of a statement – this ain’t your momma’s Hellboy movie. It’s one in which the title character isn’t the only thing that’s big, red and violent. This is a superhero adventure that’s shooting for the success of Deadpool, but is closer in tone to Venom, in that it’s completely wild to its very core.
David Harbour, of Stranger Things fame, is the one shaving down his horns this time, taking over from Ron Perlman, who played the role in the two noughties Hellboy movies helmed by Guillermo del Toro. He portrays Big Red as a petulant, grouchy teenager rebelling against the authority of his father figure (McShane) and only really showing trust towards Alice (Sasha Lane) – a young woman he rescued from fairies when she was a baby and who has retained some magical abilities. He is dispatched to the UK to deal with giants, but soon finds himself facing a bigger threat – the Blood Queen, Nimue (Milla Jovovich), is rising from the grave and has destruction on her mind.
Hellboy is a little bit like sitting in a room with some 12-year-old boys playing Grand Theft Auto. It swears like it’s just learned the words and splatters gore everywhere as if it discovered the only crayons left in the box were differing shades of crimson. The R in its American rating probably stands for Regular Beheadings, R-terial Spray and Really Bloody Violent. There’s a sense of delirious, enjoyable excess to the absurd fantasy bloodshed, but it’s achieved through sub-video game CGI that looks unbearably cheap. One moment involving McShane deserves a spot in the Bad CGI Hall of Fame alongside that notorious Dwayne Johnson scene from The Mummy Returns.
Visually, the most obvious comparison point is Blade and its sequels – one of which was directed by Del Toro – in terms of its liberal, heavily computerised gore. From a storytelling perspective, it’s more like Suicide Squad, hoping its constant onslaught of pulsating rock music will mask the fact it’s hopping between locations like a Bond movie on fast forward. One moment, Milla Jovovich’s dismembered head is in a box screaming about being “vengeance eternal” and the next, Hellboy is wrestling at a lucha libre show in Tijuana with a Spanish version of ‘Rock Me Like a Hurricane’ throbbing in the background. To say it’s a whiplash effect would be like saying Brexit is proving a little difficult.
Harbour certainly has the physicality to make the leading role work and you can’t go far wrong with either Ian McShane as a curmudgeonly sage or Milla Jovovich as a supernatural baddie, though each is saddled with awful, expletive-peppered dialogue. Sasha Lane, who was so great in American Honey and The Miseducation of Cameron Post is squandered as a Brit teen who actually uses the phrase “give a flying fig”. Her ability to commune with the dead manifests in excruciating scenes that see the recently deceased emerge on the end of a fleshy tendril from her mouth like the beast from Carpenter’s The Thing.
None of these performers, however, can hold a candle to the nightmare experienced by the usually brilliant Stephen Graham. He voices Gruagach, a hulking fairy creature in the form of a warthog – like Pumbaa if he’d gone off the rails and taken a load of steroids. Someone clearly thought the idea of Graham voicing the creature with his own Scouse accent would be hilarious, but any possible laugh is lost under the sheer, screeching volume of the punchline, which is then repeated ad infinitum. The same is true of a scene in which Jovovich’s Blood Queen observes the antics of Dani Dyer and co on Love Island – an amusing notion that never gets the chance to actually be funny.
And that’s the core issue at play here. Marshall, who previously made one of the best horror movies of the new millennium with The Descent, seemingly has too many ideas to fit into the two-hour framework. As a result, this feels like a film that has been vigorously scythed in the edit – a possible explanation for its infuriating hyperactivity.
With reams of Mike Mignola’s comic book material to include, Andrew Cosby’s script is an unwieldy mess that is not nearly as funny or original as it thinks it is, leaning on swearing rather than letting its jokes breathe. It’s a mismanagement of tone that mistakes gore and F-bombs for darkness. Characters are asked to yell exposition at each other in awkward fashion in something like multi-million dollar equivalent of one of those playground games where kids run around yelling “I’m invisible, now you can’t get me”.
Perhaps most egregious, though, is the lack of intelligence or quality in the action sequences. Marshall is responsible for two of the most epic and impressive, battle-focused episodes of Game of Thrones – ‘Blackwater’ and ‘The Watchers on the Wall’ – and so you’d be forgiven for thinking he knows his way around fantasy-inflected violence. The action in this film, however, is lifeless and lacking in any energy beyond thinking of different ways to remove human flesh from the skeleton on which it ordinarily sits. It’s the sort of splatter over style that is unforgivable in a world that has given us the elegant brutality John Wick and The Raid, Tom Cruise taking mad risks in Mission: Impossible and the tightly choreographed Marvel films.
Despite all of this, though, there’s something entertaining about Hellboy. If you were to review it from a critical checklist, there wouldn’t be a single box ticked, but there’s something that works about it from a position of pure silliness. While the characters don’t make sense and the shoddy effects work is often distracting, it’s tough not to be at least a little in awe of a movie that is a pure, adolescent sugar rush. But, just like in the case of that sugar rush, the inevitable end result is a painful crash.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.