Hellboy is celebrating 25 years this 2019, and that’s as auspicious a time as any to reboot the movie adaptations of the beloved character, brainchild of renowned comics creator Mike Mignola. Hellboy was originally part of Dark Horse Comics’ Legend imprint, which published creator- owned titles by big names in the comics industry. The cartoon show “Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot” and the two “Sin City” films are adaptations of comics from Legend. But Hellboy has had the most success at being translated to other media: three films (two by Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro), three TV or direct-to-video animated films, prose novels, video games, board games, card games, and numerous comics spin-offs.
The first two Hellboy films of Del Toro were received well enough, though didn’t exactly set the box office on fire. The second one, “The Golden Army,” made the fatal mistake of being released one week prior to the record-smashing “The Dark Knight,” which paved over all the competition and more-or-less ensured we weren’t going to see a sequel.
Instead we have a full reset, care of director Neil Marshall, who’s done some clever indie horror films like “Dog Soldiers” and “The Descent,” though may be best known for some standout “Game of Thrones” episodes like “Blackwater” and “The Watchers on the Wall,” which both featured visceral battle scenes and mayhem.
In a nutshell, Hellboy is a creature summoned by occult Nazi scientists to help them win World War II. Through the intervention of Allied forces, Professor Broom (Ian McShane) adopts the child creature and raises him as his own. Now an adult (played by “Stranger Things”’ David Harbour), he is an investigator of the paranormal working with his dad for a government bureau that specializes in the weird. In this film, an adaptation of the Hellboy volume “The Wild Hunt,” an evil immortal witch’s scattered body parts are collected to bring her back to full strength. Originally dispatched by King Arthur himself, she intends to exact vengeance on the world. Hellboy is tasked to assist M-11, the British equivalent of his organization, in stopping her.
“Hellboy” the film is, alas, not great. It’s got some strengths, but largely fails to really distinguish itself in a crowded field of comics adaptations. It plays things fairly broadly; you can feel them trying to appeal to a larger demographic, and a lack of specificity and a distinct voice results in a somewhat generic movie.
The introductory scene, for example, sets up the history of the baddie (played by Milla Jovovich) with a bunch of quick cuts and stylized violence, but doesn’t have much in the way of emotional impact. At times the style is too frenetic; it doesn’t really mesh well with the fantasy/horror aspects from which Hellboy originates. A somewhat humorous scene where Hellboy fights a couple of giants is played as if it was a series of long takes but the effects are inconsistent and the camera movement is a bit clunky, so you can tell how it was stitched together.
The dialogue doesn’t stand out, and some of the exposition is inelegant. The entirety of Hellboy’s team, Hellboy included, get flashbacks to explain their origin story. Jovovich makes a meal out of some purple prose, but perhaps this is intentional, to contrast sharply with Hellboy’s rejoinders. If so, those rejoinders and their delivery could’ve been stronger. The film revels unnecessarily in its R-rating; lots of swearing and dismemberment seems to shout “This is an intense Hellboy! You know… for adults!”
The worst offender is the music. Motley Crüe and Alice Cooper songs seem to take the lead, the score following in their wake, thrash guitars overcompensating at nearly every turn, then switching to orchestral for nonaction scenes. If anything, it’s those quieter moments that are missed. The downtime in the Del Toro films is where the characters got to shine, and Hellboy’s immaturity (though decades old, developmentally he’s kind of a teenager) got its spotlight. There isn’t much humor in this entry, which could’ve given some much-needed character to both in-story characters and the film itself.
There are aspects that could’ve been brought to the fore: Hellboy resisting everyone’s orders to kill all monsters, his strained relationship with his dad; these are stronger here than in Del Toro’s versions but don’t get fleshed out enough.
They’re even a little too eager to launch their universe: ending on a tease, there are an additional two scenes in the credits. Hellboy is a great character and a great world, with a wealth of great stories, and hopefully we’ll see more of them, but hopefully, they’ll be much stronger than this entry.