Directed by Neil Marshall
Starring David Harbour, Milla Jovovich, Ian McShane
The new iteration of Hellboy arrives with an interesting proposition: What if we combined two of the most reliable genres—the superhero movie and the horror movie—and mixed them up? The only reason why this idea would seem revolutionary is because Hellboy 2019 is arriving ahead of two genre mashups (the James Gunn-produced Brightburn and the so-delayed-who-knows-if-it’s-even-coming X-Men spin-off The New Mutants), and is certainly the first to wear its mutant DNA on its sleeve (M. Night Shyamalan’s Split and Glass don’t feel like comic-book thrillers so much as a pretentious repudiation of them). Unfortunately, Hellboy cherrypicks the worst impulses of both genres and ends up being ineffective in both.
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Stranger Things’ David Harbour is now playing Mike Mignola’s seminal conflicted superhero, a hellspawn recruited by the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense to track down and eliminate supernatural threats to the planet. Apart from a prologue tackling the backstory of Hellboy’s soon-to-be nemesis, a powerful sorceress named Nimue (Milla Jovovich), there is no getting-to-know-you phase for Harbour’s interpretation of Hellboy. No explanation for his sawed-off horns, or his grotesquely misproportioned right hand, or even how he came into this world. And so Harbour, fine character actor that he is, fills in some of the blanks by approaching Hellboy as an adolescent, whining about his missions and fanboying over legendary ghost vigilantes. It’s a markedly different tactic than Ron Perlman’s take, which is gruff and explosive mercenary.
Then again, Perlman had to be the adult in the room, because Guillermo del Toro saw Hellboy as more of a dark fairy tale, rather than a special effects-heavy riff on Resident Evil the video game. Everything about Hellboy 2019 is angled toward satisfying the worst impulses of a generation brought up on first person shooter games—from the gratuitous violence to the abundance of CGI to the booming soundtrack. It’s a dispiriting turn from Neil Marshall, who directed 2005’s The Descent, the story of an all-female spelunking trip gone horribly awry (still one of the finest exercises in cinematic claustrophobia you can watch).
Hellboy gives Marshall free rein on an expansive canvas—and it’s as if he doesn’t know what to do with his freedom. There’s a band of clairvoyants named the Osiris Club. There’s a teenager (Sasha Lane) abducted by fairies and a vaguely annoyed military leader (Lost’s Daniel Dae-Kim) who can turn into a jaguar doing duty as Hellboy’s sidekicks. There are brief forays into Arthurian legend, Russian mysticism and Nazi machinations. Yet none of these elements coalesce into a coherent plot. The hallmark of this muddled storytelling appears late in the movie, when Sasha Lane’s punk clairvoyant Alice vomits up the spirit of Hellboy’s no-nonsense father figure (Ian McShane) so he can give his adopted son a pep talk during the climactic battle with Nimue.
Of all the magical devices on hand, why settle on puke? Then again, if you’ve reached that far into this migraine-inducing mess of a superhero/horror hodgepodge, you might feel like barfing too.