Perhaps there is nothing I can say that can condemn the Hellboy revamp quite so badly as this fact – I nodded off twice in the middle of watching it, despite having napped earlier that afternoon and being freshly caffeinated. Yet Hellboy goes beyond being merely dull and manages to be completely soulless.
To use a musical analogy, a computer program attached to a synthesizer can reproduce a musical work with perfect technical precision but it still won’t sound as good as a live orchestra where you can feel the passion of the players. That is Hellboy in a nutshell. In their effort to flawlessly replicate every single page and panel of Mike Mignola’s work and bring his characters to life, writer Andrew Cosby and director Neil Marshall have ironically sucked all the life out of one of comics’ most creative settings.
The story is a painfully faithful adaptation of the graphic novel The Wild Hunt with a few minor additions (also taken from the comics) to introduce the key cast members. While Cosby’s script draws deeply on the lore of Hellboy, only people who have read the comics will be able to keep up, even as the movie rushes to introduce all its players. The sheer amount of set-up is staggering, with over half the film passing before our heroes get around to dealing with the plot. Despite this, the whole movie inspires a feeling akin to walking in on the second act of a three-act play or attempting to start watching a television series in mid-season.
Case in point. Before we get to the actual plot, we have to see Hellboy wrestle a vampire, learn about the BPRD and what they do, be introduced to Hellboy’s adoptive father Professor Broom (Ian McShane), send Hellboy to England to have his origins explained by a group of monster hunters, see him be betrayed by said group of monster hunters while going off to hunt giants, watch Hellboy fight said giants, see a beat-up Hellboy get nursed back to health by medium Alice Monaghan (Sasha Lane), learn how Alice and Hellboy know each other through a flashback and then learn (through Alice) that things are getting weird in the ethereal realms and this all ties in to the return of Nimue, The Blood Queen (Milla Jovovich).
Did you get all that? There will be a quiz later.
This much backstory might have been tolerable if Cosby’s script showed us more than it told us. Unfortunately, third-person narration is the rule rather than the exception and many of these sequences involve characters telling things to people who already know the story that is being explained purely for the benefit of the audience. Miraculously, the phrase “As you well know...” is somehow avoided.
Apart from David Harbour, the script doesn’t really challenge any of the cast. Milla Jovovich does nothing but stand around and look inhumanly beautiful. Ian McShane does little but sit around and be surly. Sasha Lane is just there until she needs to channel a dead person to talk to. Harbour does get some meaty material about feeling conflicted that he’s been raised to kill monsters but he’s wondering if those monsters might have been something different with his upbringing. Nothing much comes of this, however, and most of the dialogue is peppered with profanities for no other reason beyond needing to show this is a serious adult movie and not a silly superhero thing.
For similar cynical reasons, the action sequences contain more blood and gore than many modern horror movies. While Hellboy is hardly an Uncle Scrooge comic, its violence does not go to the ridiculous extremes pictured in this movie. Yet even more ridiculous than this is the movie’s CGI, which somehow looks more dated than the computer animation used in the first two Hellboy movies, with monsters that may well have been taken from a PS2 era Silent Hill game. Indeed, the whole aesthetic of this film resembles the 1997 Spawn movie more than any comic book movie produced in the past decade.
The only thing that saves Hellboy from a lower rating is the fact that individual elements are technically well-executed, even if they fail to function as a cohesive whole. The costumes and sets look fantastic but it’s a pretty paint job on a cow-pie. The best thing I can say about Hellboy is that it made me want to reread the original comics again. Unfortunately, this was because I wanted to make sure the comics were as good as I remembered them. I’m happy to report that they are, but this movie is just terrible and a prime example of missing the forest for the trees.