More like Hellbro

By Darren Franich
April 10, 2019 at 06:00 PM EDT
Mark Rogers/Lionsgate
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  • Movie

I’ve always been fascinated with the human eyeball. It’s a very complicated organ, you know. And the new Hellboy offers prime viewing opportunities for we retinal enthusiasts. The very first shot features a bird slurping eye-whites from an unlucky corpse. It’s a prologue set in the Dark Ages, 517 A.D., not an era known for its lucky corpses. But this is an R-rated film, so the gouging continues into the present day.

Hellboy (David Harbour) blinds a giant during one monster fight, and if you’ve ever wondered what a giant’s brain looks like spilling through a sundered skull, the answer is “oatmeal blended with maggots and raisins.” Ugh, raisins! Later, the titular red snarkbot runs afoul of nefarious Baba Yaga (Troy James). The folkloric witch lost an eye when last they met — and she seeks Hellboy’s eye as payback. Alas, we only get to see one movie star’s optic nerve. It belongs to Milla Jovovich, who plays magically monstrous Queen Nimue, a baddie split in six pieces.

Not a spoiler, I swear. In the opening scene, Nimue gets her head cut off by a dishonest King named Arthur. The mythic Brit comes off badly, breaking a peace treaty, burying Nimue’s body in six places. “Hot Take: King Arthur, Bad?” is a cool concept for our royal-gazing times — a sharper interpretation, certainly, than that one movie where King Arthur rolled with Transformers. Nothing else in Hellboy is so surprising, but gorehounds will appreciate a couple gruesome set pieces.

Harbour was a top-notch character actor before Stranger Things made him an everyguy star. Now he’s buried under bad makeup and the kind of bad attitude that used to sell skateboard clothes to kids who couldn’t skateboard. Hellboy is a demonic entity who has investigated the paranormal for decades, but he vibes like any other action dude. Sometimes he’s a meta Deadpooligan. When one of the movie’s various seers fatefully predicts the end of the world, Hellboy retorts: “I appreciate a prophecy with smaller and more relatable stakes.” Most of his lines are old-school beefcake, though, quips copy-pasted from a steroidal blast-’em-up. “Nobody told me there was a dress code!” he’ll say, entering a room full of uniformed bad guys. His big action climax even ends with a Schwarzenegger-ish one-liner pun, a gag in every sense of the word.

The Hellboy comic book inspired two features last decade, directed by Guillermo Del Toro and starring Ron Perlman. No point comparing those delightful fantasy comedies to this splattery reboot. Del Toro packed the screen with luscious fantasy imagery. Perlman earned Karloff comparisons playing a rueful-romantic hero, a monster more human than humans. Whereas this new film wants to be a punch in the face.

Success, I guess? Director Neil Marshall is most known for the fearful cave-horror film The Descent and a two big Game of Thrones battles. Hellboy occasionally offers Marshall’s dark swagger on a grand scale, an underworld unleashed with skin-ripping excess. But too much of the film is just bland cloudy-grim action set to lightweight metal machine music. At pivotal moments, the special effects can turn laughably bad. Wait till you see what happens to Ian McShane.

The Deadwood actor plays Trevor Bruttenholm, founder of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. He’s a human sending his adopted hell-son to fight magical miscreants. Is Trevor using Hellboy, weaponizing a demon against his own kind? A potentially interesting father-son dynamic, maybe. But the monsters are indifferent freak shows, squirmy-pustulent creatures whose most profound desire is to smash Hellboy to hell-bits.

The best thing I can say is: This is a mess that makes no sense, so it’s a cure for the common overly architected superhero film. I liked Shazam! fine, and even appreciated how every character repeated the word “family” with Torettovian frequency. Here, Hellboy goes to Mexico to fight a vampire, then he goes to Britain to fight giants, then someone remembers Milla Jovovich is supposed to be in the movie, then a normal elevator drops Hellboy into another dimension.

But most scenes follow a deflating formula: Hellboy walks into a room knowing nothing about anything, then someone tells him everything about something. Jovovich is a distant presence shot with network TV stiffness, as if she filmed every location on the same green-screen stage. The best sequence doesn’t feature any major or even minor characters, which is some kind of accomplishment.

Eventually, Hellboy develops a grudging alliance with a British operative named Daimio, played by Daniel Dae Kim with terse charisma and a meandering accent. Daimio narrates his own origin story. And Hellboy narrates the origin story of his magical pal Alice (Sasha Lane). And Trevor narrates the origin story of Nimue. And a seer (Sophie Okonedo) narrates Hellboy’s origin story. And then someone else narrates another chapter in Hellboy’s origin story.

Andrew Cosby’s explain-y script works against Marshall, whose work can be pulp-poetic in its visual assault. Some characters are introduced with the kind of flourish that assumes audience recognition. I’m not so familiar with Mike Mignola’s comics, and can’t speak to whether this is a truer adaptation than Del Toro’s duology. I hope not. This reboot has the unmistakable sneer of an earlier sort of comic book movie, when the average producer always assumed nerdy source material required serious cowboying the f— up.

Look, I’m glad expensive movies are R-rated again. But this is the doofiest kind of maturity: boring CGI bloodsprays, F-bombs galore. “Well, I’ll be f—ed,” Daimyo says. “F— you, Hellboy,” a dying baddie sputters. “Stop being a whiny little sh—,” Trevor tells his son, “GROW A PAIR.” Surely Mignola’s not to blame for this dialogue. “We are the line in the sand!” Trevor declares. “That’s the thing about sand,” Hellboy retorts, “You can draw another line!” Ah, so that’s the thing about sand. C

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