Hellboy, directed by Neil Marshall, is an ugly film. This ugliness is not attributed to its hulking red lead character, nor because of near-constant goopy gore. Rather, it disgusts because it is haphazardly pasted together. The jerky CGI and action sequences both unchoreographed and poorly-animated. Every aspect of Hellboy feels limited, misshapen, and forced. The film takes a previously interesting character, and sadly just puts him through the motions.
Hellboy (David Harbour) is a government agent who is part-devil, part-man. He is called in whenever supernatural beings start to disturb human society. When he isn’t clobbering baddies with his giant stone-fist, he is drinking heavily and trying to come to terms with being a caring monster in a world of heartless humans. When Nimue (Milla Jovovich), a centuries-old witch known as “The Blood Queen,” is resurrected, Hellboy must decide if he wants to continue helping mankind or give in to his demonic destiny.
Hellboy’s production was plagued with drama and artistic limitation. It has been said that the studio disagreed with director Neil Marshall’s handling of the film and took it away from him. Rumors got out of Harbour walking off-set in frustration. The problems on set and in post-production are present in every scene. Practical effects are awkwardly and pointlessly covered up by bad CGI, as though the decision to add in some digital effects was made at the last minute. Obtrusive voice-over narration is inserted to explain complicated plot points quickly, though not clearly. Maybe 25% of the dialogue is delivered off camera or by characters out of frame, suggesting that the story was heavily changed after filming. The idea of a gritty, R-rated Hellboy directed by someone as talented as Neil Marshall (who directed 2006’s The Descent and several great episodes of Game of Thrones) is promising, but there is almost no part of this film that isn’t completely wasted.
The lowish budget of Hellboy is somewhat to blame for the overall pitiful visual effects and chaotic and unwatchable action sequences. $50 million is a relatively small budget for a film that relies heavily on CGI to create otherworldly beings. Sadly, the effects don’t feel necessary. The supernatural creatures look believable and creepy when they are created with practical effects, and look just awful when they switch to being computer generated. There is plenty of digital grime and mess to go around, but it never looks remotely real. Monsters are impaled and explode as if they have paper for skin. When innocent humans are grotesquely mutilated, everything looks incredibly fake that it never is scary. It resembles a rough cut of the film that wasn’t meant for the public. The production woes no doubt resulted in an unpolished film being released. In a world where filmgoers have come to expect the best effects, shoddy creations just won’t cut it. Hellboy would have benefited from strictly using practical effects.
It would be unfair to say that Marshall’s Hellboy doesn’t compare to the Guillermo del Toro original from 2004 and the 2008 sequel, Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Those films somehow managed to combine impressive visuals, solid action, and a constantly inventive descent into the ever-expanding supernatural world of this universe. To the latest film’s credit, it doesn’t attempt to totally replicate the del Toro films. While Harbour’s Hellboy looks pretty similar to Ron Perlman’s Hellboy, there are enough small differences that it doesn’t feel like an impersonation. This film also chooses to not include characters like the large fishman Abe Sapien (previously performed by Doug Jones and voiced by David Hyde Pierce) or the pyrokinetic Liz Sherman (played by Selma Blair). Choosing to not include these popular characters was a gutsy move. While the filmmakers likely thought these characters would fit well in sequels, it helps this most recent Hellboy not feel like something we’ve already seen before.
The latest Hellboy also wisely isn’t much of an “origin story”. While we do get a brief explanation of how Hellboy rose from the depths of the ground to live amongst humans, it doesn’t feel like an unneeded repetition. It is possible this lack of explanation has more to do with the haphazard assembly of the film than a conscious effort by the filmmakers. Regardless, it is a welcome absence.
Although Hellboy is plagued by bad studio decisions, the cast clearly is trying. Milla Jovovich is entertaining as Nimue, clearly having a blast playing a villain. Her character’s motivations and methods for taking over the world seem both playful (deciding to end humanity over reality TV is as good a reason as any) and serious (walking through England, casting a plague on anyone she sees). David Harbour plays Hellboy with a nice mix of both confidence and exhaustion. Hellboy knows he is good at his job but also is appropriately distanced from humans. One scene where he drunkenly connects with a scorpion that stings him shows a vulnerability that should have been at the core of every scene. Casting Sasha Lane as Alice Monaghan, a psychic who helps Hellboy is an inspired choice, but the movie gives her absolutely nothing worthwhile to do. Giving the American actress a British accent was an absolutely awful decision that her performance can’t fight through. Her frustration toward being saddled with this accent is very obvious, her eyes pleading for one more take where she doesn’t sound ridiculous. Again though, this doesn’t appear to be Lane’s fault. Every actor in Hellboy is trying, but no performance is left unscathed by the atrocious production decisions.
Neil Marshall was the right director to take on this series. He has shown through his work in both film and television that he can make great action films that balance both crowd-pleasing heroics with supernatural and horror elements. Unfortunately, the studio didn’t seem to know that when they hired him. Hellboy is a difficult film to watch and is one of the biggest let-downs of 2019. The studio not only destroyed the Hellboy reboot but may have also made another 10+ year wait for a new film likely and possibly necessary.