There’s great movies, good movies, and bad movies. Somewhere in been good and bad is junk food cinema, which you probably call a “guilty pleasure.” Junk food cinema is a movie you have playing in the background while you work and look up to watch during fun scenes. Neil Marshall (The Descent, Doomsday, Dog Soldiers)’s Hellboy is junk food cinema at best. It only needs to be watched for its delicious visuals, and not the stupid plot that involves, yes, Merlin, King Arthur and his sword, Excalibur.
Hellboy stars the delightful David Harbour (Stranger Things) as the severed-horned titular antihero with a big red right hand who investigates and fights the paranormal as well as his inner-demons. His dad (played by the always great Ian McShane) saved baby Hellboy long ago from the Nazis (who were trying to take over the world by summoning Hellboy) and kept him around to fight the paranormal and learn to be a good... guy? Well, the paranormal has other plans as they need Hellboy to take over, or destroy, the world, I’m unsure which. Added to that, the paranormal who need him are also trying to kill him, and Hellboy needs King Arthur’s sword to decide if he wants to become what he was born to be -- evil -- or stay good for mankind… hello? Are you still with me?
Oh yeah, and Milla Jovovich co-stars in a blink-and-miss role as The Blood Queen -- the original title of the movie that was changed because the producers forgot this was a movie and made too many damn changes.
This ultra sensationalism of the plot is the product of producers Lawrence Gordon and Lloyd Levin coming in and fucking everything up, which is typical Hollywood hoopla when a director doesn’t get complete creative freedom. This makes me feel remarkably sad for Neil Marshall because he’s previously made three exceptional films on his own terms, and David Harbour, because this was his shining moment in cinema. This is a real bummer because Marshall and Harbour will take the fall in the public eye while Gordon and Levin sit back and collect their paychecks.
Other than the Hollywood machine tampering, Hellboy has a plague of problems. It’s loosely taken from Hellboy creator Mike Mignola’s The Wild Hunt and The Storm and the Fury storylines but feels like five different plots and movies. Its weakness is its rough, uneven pace. It’s feels like different scenes from different Hellboy movies slapped together. The editing is a disaster, and Martin Bernfeld shouldn't take full blame for this because he had the heavy task of making a coherent movie by piecing together scenes shot for probably different storylines that clearly changed during production. Did he succeed? No. Was it his fault? Not really. Hellboy is not a movie. Hellboy is not Neil Marshall’s movie. It would not be surprising if he soon John Woos it and goes back to his native country to make movies, where he can make them on his own terms.
Another major flaw with Hellboy is its tone. It’s not sure if it wants to be a horror film or Evil Dead-esque horror comedy. One minute Hellboy is asking, “Is that my Uber driver?” and fighting demons who look like they came straight from the set of Evil Dead II, carrying their cheesy lines and all, and the next demons are ripping apart humans and blood is spraying on the camera.
David Harbour had big shoes to fill but he’s a likable, charismatic guy and his charm shines through his flawed Jim Hopper in Stranger Things. Hellboy doesn’t give him enough room to show this charming man’s appeal. A quip here and a quip there, and he gives it his best, but what the room he’s given doesn’t allow him to give it his all and that’s a shame.
Hellboy does have a few things going for it. It’s violent as hell, often to the point of disgusting, and the movie is a visual beast with good CGI and makeup. I was worried Harbour would look and feel just like Ron Perlman’s Hellboy, but there’s not much of a trace of that here. Harbour makes the character his own with the limits he was given.
Here’s the thing, Hellboy as a movie doesn’t work. As we learned from Guillermo del Toro’s excellent Hellboy and Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (both starring the brooding Ron Perlman as the demonic antihero), which both garnered critical acclaim but bombed at the box office; Hellboy doesn’t have a demographic in cinema. The movies are based on graphic novels but seen as comic book movies and are too scary for kids, and it’s not really appealing if you’re not a fan of Hellboy graphic novels or del Toro (shame on you if you’re not. The latter is on you.) So this new Hellboy, which goes for the hard R-rating, cuts out teens wanting to see a PG-13 movie, so Hellboy was already ice-skating uphill before it released.
Hellboy sets up for a sequel, but this would-be franchise isn’t going anywhere, not anytime soon at least. If Hellboy is a movie, the team behind it are unaware of what kind of movie they want it to be. I don’t want to call it “bad” and undercut the meaning of bad, so how about Hellboy is fucking awful.? Delicious visuals can’t save this movie from a savage cinematic death. To quote The Clash, Hellboy can “Go straight to hell…boy.”