Ironically enough, the romantic Hellboy and the Hellboy with the monster dicks in it are two completely different movies. In typical fairy-tale fashion, Guillermo del Toro’s 2004 film version of Mike Mignola’s comics series framed the demon-turned-demon hunter through the lens of a lovesick teenager. The new reboot of the franchise also approaches Hellboy from an adolescent point of view, but with a distinct variation on the concept: This is the sneering form of the word frequently lobbed at Transformers movies, the kind that prioritizes guitar riffs, sarcastic one-liners, and blustering tumbleweeds of CGI creatures wrestling each other.
On the upside, this big, loud, dumb action-horror hybrid is directed by Neil Marshall, best known for horror movies like The Descent and epic battle scenes on Game Of Thrones. That gives the film’s hard-R makeover some actual edge, in the form of gnarly gore effects that start with a vampire being impaled on the post of a Mexican wrestling ring and build towards people being literally torn in half on the streets of London, guts splattering everywhere. (On a more juvenile note, Hellboy does drop quite a few f-bombs, too.) Marshall’s horror pedigree also results in some very cool, repulsive-in-a-good-way creature design—particularly in the scenes featuring Baba Yaga, an ancient one-eyed witch who can contort herself into a spider walk a lá The Exorcist. The set design is also impressive, but unfortunately that’s where the creativity in this film ends.
Hellboy digs relatively deep into the series’ mythology, emphasizing the Arthurian aspects of the comic’s lore. (It’s all part of the ineffable Britishness of the film, a trait epitomized by a visual gag involving Jaffa Cakes.) The main villain also comes from the comics: Nimue (Milla Jovovich), a.k.a The Blood Queen, a fifth-century witch with a Magneto-esque plan to wipe out humanity and create a new civilization run by monsters. She wants Hellboy to be her king, and manages to get far enough into his head that he questions his loyalty to his adoptive father Professor Broom (Ian McShane) and the Bureau Of Paranormal Research And Defense in general. But first, Hellboy has to fight vampires, giants, witches, and, most terrifying of all, duplicitous one-percent types.
The sentimental father-son subplot is Hellboy at its most laughably absurd, highlighting the chasm between its script and its direction. Harbour, so endearing as Sheriff Hopper on Stranger Things, has none of the agreeable humor Ron Perlman brought to the character; as a result, his many quips go over like a fart in an elevator. The makeup is wearing him, to the extent that it takes a while to get used to his voice coming out of Hellboy’s body. Sasha Lane and Daniel Dae Kim’s supporting roles are similarly disjointed; both are fine characters with comic-book origins, but they’re shoehorned in so awkwardly that they feel superfluous. McShane glides by on how much everyone loves it when he says the word “fuck,” leaving Jovovich to give the most committed, and therefore the best, performance in the film.
Unusually for a would-be blockbuster, Hellboy was written by just one person: Andrew Cosby, creator of the Syfy TV series Eureka. So why is its screenplay so incoherent? The Hellboy comics draw inspiration from pulp magazines, whose bite-sized nuggets of globe-trotting peril are reflected in the episodic nature of the script. Bizarre interludes featuring Thomas Hayden Church as Lobster Johnson, a square-jawed midcentury hero seemingly beamed in from another movie, further reinforce the notion that Cosby was reaching for something more swashbuckling than what he ended up with. Combine this with the hardcore badassery of Marshall’s direction, all smash cuts and needle drops, and the result is less a thrilling adventure tale than a trip to a teenager’s messy, sock-strewn bedroom.