WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
When a group of Nazis try to call up a demon to help turn the tide of the Second World War in their favour, it turns out that the demon they summoned is just a baby. Sent to stop this menace, the BPRD, a government agency dedicated to dealing with paranormal menaces the world over, is prevented from murdering the baby demon by one of their members, the cantankerous Professor Broom who instead adopts the hell-born child, appropriately and names him Hellboy. Over the decades, Hellboy worked closely with the BPRD and his adopted father to take down any supernatural threat that arose but when he finds himself trying to take down a beautiful, immortal “blood witch” he is forced to confront the monster inside as he proves to be the central figure in a prophecy that means nothing less than the annihilation of all humankind.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
Guillermo del Toro’s two Hellboy films were never quite as successful as the mega-blockbuster comic book adaptations from Marvel and DC but they had a genuine artistic vision and personality that allowed them to stand tall among the very best offerings from the “Big Two”. The second film, in particular, remains one of the best comic book films of the century and is, for my money, still the third-best del Toro film, behind only his masterpieces the Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth.
Despite Hellboy II: The Golden Army’s relatively weak showing at the box office (it was rather overshadowed by Batman Begins and Iron Man), it did just about well enough that fans were hardly unrealistic to expect a third film to finish off del Toro’s loosely planned trilogy. Both the director and his star, Ron Perlman, were keen to return for a third film and there were certainly at least some preliminary plans in place should the studio decide to greenlight it.
When a rebooted Hellboy without the involvement of either del Toro or Perlman was announced, fans were, to say the least, dubious. It’s true, del Toro’s dark-fantasy films were far more reflective of his vision than the more subdued gothic-horror of Mike Mignola’s original comics but even claims that the new Hellboy would be much closer to the source material than its predecessors did little to quiet the fears of those who were, rightly, fans of what del Toro did with the character. Things certainly weren’t helped when the first trailers hit and it seemed like the film was a less distinctive retread of del Toro’s films but with R-rated violence and swearing.
Sadly, their worst fears weren’t only justified, but they vastly underestimated just how much of a trainwreck the new Hellboy would turn out to be. Despite a fine cast and an acclaimed director in the form of Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers, the Descent and a number of episodes of premium TV shows), Hellboy (2019) is a nasty, tiresome, ugly, and embarrassingly juvenile exercise in the worst excesses of geek culture.
You don’t have to be an actual geek (though I proudly am one) to recognise these excesses from a mile away. It’s the sort of brain-dead crap that results from those that think that “adult” or “mature” means buckets of gore, loads of swearing and a sort of macho (and often misogynist) posturing that takes it from bad to horrible. It’s also the sort of thinking that insists that anything that doesn’t have these “adult” trademarks are nothing more than “kiddie stuff” that is well below their contempt.
This sort of thing that’s just about appropriate for thirteen-year-old boys but all too frequently comes from the minds of those nearer to middle age than adolescence. You can find this unbearable attitude in the very worst of the worst comics, video games and movies – and it’s in abundance in Hellboy. Though largely minus the misogyny, to be fair, and without even much in the way of gratuitous nudity.
Hellboy is flat out incompetent in terms of pacing, character-development and editing (the plot itself is solid enough but is very poorly executed) but its incompetence is the least of its problems. Sure, you can’t make heads or tails of what’s going on in the action scenes, and you don’t particularly care about the characters, but that just makes it your typical poor 2-star film. What makes Hellboy truly objectionable is that it’s not merely a bad movie, it’s a fairly repugnant one at that.
There, of course, have been many good films that have been extremely violent, profane, ugly, even difficult to watch but those tend to earn their unpleasantness. Hellboy absolutely doesn’t. It’s extraordinarily violent and gory but it doesn’t use the violence to any real purpose and, perhaps even worse, it does so in a way that is entirely devoid of wit and that particular kind of joy that you often find in your more successful exploitation films. It’s just ugly and mean spirited and really no fun at all.
And speaking of witless, Hellboy also has some of the worst dialogue I’ve come across in a major film in a very long time. All the characters basically speak in one-liners that are presumably supposed to be funny and/or edgy but are, almost without fail, lame beyond words. It’s a solid enough cast, but almost all of them have seldom been worse thanks to weak characterisation and the utterly dreadful dialogue with which they’re saddled.
Perhaps the very worst thing about it, though, is that there are actually a few good things about it; some fun ideas and nice creature designs. Rather than saving the film, though, the stuff about it that works only serves to remind us of just how much everything else isn’t. There’s a good Hellboy film buried miles beneath the surface of this very, very bad Hellboy film and any glimpses of that potentially good movie – to say nothing of any reminders of del Toro’s incomparably superior take – only remind us of just how much of a wasted opportunity this is.
Even more, so that Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy movies, this current version was always going to have a tough time at a box office already stuffed with comic-book movies. The only difference is that this time around it deserves to be buried by the superhero juggernauts coming from Marvel and DC.