Let me state right up front that I’m just as disappointed as the rest of you that Guillermo del Toro never got to finish off his Hellboy trilogy. Those first two were genuinely pretty awesome action-adventure films, and some dangling threads left from The Golden Army feel tantalizingly untied. But Neil Marshall’s rebooted take on Hellboy deserves to be judged on its own merits, its own strengths and weaknesses as a story and audiovisual experience.
So, uh, what the hell happened here?
The problems become very quickly apparent as the film’s prologue introduces us to Nimue, the Blood Queen (Milla Jovovich), as she is thwarted by King Arthur in one of the most hastily edited expository scenes I’ve seen in about a decade, introducing a whole lot of characters and concepts that probably sounded like great world-building on paper but necessitate a clunky narration from Ian McShane as this version’s grumpier rendition of Professor Broom. You would be forgiven for assuming this is a bit of truncated sacrifice for time, a measure to keep the runtime down to the two-hour mark and allow the rest of the film to breathe and flow through its characters and dramatic beats. Instead, that expository speed remains constant, throwing Hellboy (David Harbour) through a rigamarole of situations that are characterized less by logical action and consequence than they are necessary explanation for unnecessarily complicated scripting.
Hellboy fights a vampire dressed as a luchador while a crowd of wrestling fans boos him. Hellboy meets a bunch of Englishmen who I guess act as the counterpart to the American organization Hellboy works for, but we aren’t introduced to the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense well enough for the contrast to mean anything. A flashback sequence to Hellboy's summoning prominently features a Nazi in 3D glasses for no adequately explained reason. Hellboy fights a bunch of giants, because why the hell not? Hellboy digs up Merlin's corpse to have a chat with it about Excalibur. The Blood Queen marches down the street shooting plague bugs at people but a news anchor hilariously can't seem to figure out what's causing the epidemic. Demons raze London because we need some cool trailer fodder and zero consequence. It's all just non-stop nonsense, and it's barely more contiguous than this paragraph makes it sound.
We’re introduced to a plethora of characters who each get an opportunity to explain their backstory and motivation through extensive and excessive flashbacks and exposition, including: a psychic (Sasha Lane) with the really gross ability to barf up ghosts to have a chat with them; a scar-faced soldier (Daniel Dae Kim) who has something against demons and definitely isn’t injecting himself with a goo that prevents a Jekyll/Hyde scenario; the Baba Yaga (Emma Tate), a demon living in a interdimensional house with chicken feet and a very sloppy kisser; and a pig man (Stephen Graham) who waddles around like a villain from Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers and whines about how Hellboy kicked his ass once.
Ostensibly this is all in service to fleshing out a rich world, but the plot is way too simple for this much complication: The previously imprisoned Blood Queen wants to return to power and awaken Hellboy’s hidden potential as a demon king by seducing him to evil. It’s an engaging conflict, but not enough time or energy is spent on making these characters likable or interesting to justify the attempted nuance. The editing is a haphazard mess, but the plot feels like such a hack job from what must have been an unreasonably longer cut that I can’t really fault the effort to bring this down to size. It certainly doesn’t help, though, that there are some very obvious post-production additions in the works here, from jokes added in ADR that land with a resounding thud to metal riff soundtrack choices that desperately want you to think this is the next Guardians of the Galaxy. I can assure you that it is not.
Even things I like about Hellboy come with inherent qualifications. I like Harbour’s take on Big Red as a brawny child torn between his self-image as hellspawn and the inherent good that others see in him, but so much of his dialogue is such garbage exposition that this personality doesn’t get much room to shine through. I like Neil Marshall’s trademark practical gore effects, but they are juxtaposed with digital compositing ripped right out of 2004. I even like the grotesquerie of most of the creature designs, as poorly and cheaply rendered as some of them are, but the fight scenes are such a chaotic mess of muddied shot composition that it becomes impossible to track their movements as they continually beat the ever-loving shit out of the supposedly imposing Hellboy.
Seriously, he loses almost every single fight and is saved by complete contrivance. It’s not even framed as a joke. It’s just kinda sad. Until you realize it's kind of unintentionally funny.
Individually, all these faults are somewhat dull and banal, so the film does initially feel like a chore to sit through as scene after scene is overborne by incessant exposition. And yet, as the problems start to snowball and compound and interact with the inherent weirdness of the franchise, a sort of bizarro charm takes over and you get another boost every time another strange, dumb-as-rocks creative choice makes its way to your eyeballs and earholes. A longer cut certainly wouldn’t fix its pacing or structural issues, but it would certainly shed some light on how exactly anyone thought they could cram this much movie into a normal movie amount of time. There are three sequel hooks stapled to the end of this thing, yet somehow it earns none of them. I don't even know how that's possible! Hellboy is some very ill-advised cinema, and those who enjoy the prospect of cinematic trainwrecks are likely to get some joy out of this. Everyone else... well, you all know where to find the better version.