So, Hellboy’s a mess. That’s not to say that it’s complicated, or unclear, exactly; no story filled with this many clichés can really be too confusing. But the latest adaptation of Mike Mignola’s cult comics — an attempt to reboot the successful, if short-lived, film franchise Guillermo del Toro started back in 2004 — throws so many tired plot points and revelations at us that it all feels like an exhausting blur. Directed this time by Neil Marshall (who gave us The Descent), it rushes from story line to story line with graceless impatience. It’s inert where it should be fast, and cluttered and choppy where it should be rousing. Which is a shame, because Hellboy, as conceived, is one of the more interesting comic book heroes we have. He deserves better than this.
Even the film’s prologue, which involves the ancient, power-mad blood queen Nimue (Milla Jovovich) being defeated by King Arthur before she can take over the world, feels familiar, blending a second-rate retread of The Lord of the Rings’ opening moments with the kind of mythical blather that already felt tired when Transformers: The Last Knight did it several years ago. The only distinction this time is the heightened gore, as Nimue is graphically chopped up into little pieces onscreen. The Arthurian backstory actually comes from the Hellboy comics, and it might have felt like a playful mash-up once, but here it feels like creative desperation.
Needless to say, the seductive and sinister Nimue will be coming back soon — ancient, vanquished witch queens always do. And it’ll be up to the red-faced, block-shaped, wise-cracking half-demon paranormal investigator Hellboy (David Harbour, doing a dutiful job, but with little of the Burt Lancaster-like swagger Ron Perlman brought to Del Toro’s version of the character) to stop her from being stitched back together and conquering the world. Hellboy also has a connection to the power of King Arthur on his side, though I won’t say exactly how that plays out — suffice it to say that it’s sort of like The Kid Who Would Be King, just with more blood and people yelling, “Fuck!” Meanwhile, along for the ride are Hellboy’s clairvoyant pal Alice (Sasha Lane) and fellow paranormal investigator, ex-marine and dormant were-jaguar Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim), who is secretly prepared to take down Hellboy himself if it looks like our hero is about to turn bad.
The idea of the central character’s true nature, and what he might become, is one of the emotional focal points of the film. Hellboy expresses some reluctance about joining the fight against Nimue. “The answer to every threat we face can’t be annihilation,” he yells at his father Professor Trevor Bruttenholm (Ian McShane), who leads the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. Dad’s response? “She got to you with her perfumed words and perky breasts!” Maybe, but Hellboy’s also concerned about a prophecy that claims he will bring about the end of the world. He’s terrified about what he might be capable of; in one captivatingly brief dream vision, he sees himself riding a terrifying dragon skeleton and transforming a human city into a vision of hellfire. It’s an awesome little moment that eventually feels like a let-down when the film’s real climax, with a group of giants from the beyond tearing a corner of London to pieces, turns out to be so abbreviated and cut-rate, like excerpts from an abandoned subplot.
The best thing I can say about this Hellboy is that, for all the chaotic poverty of its story and characterizations, its world is a creatively imagined one. I enjoyed its delirious cavalcade of what-if monster mash-ups. There are child-stealing fairies and foulmouthed Scottish boar-demons and giant pock-marked frog warriors, and at one point Sasha Lane vomits out a naked, serpentine Ian McShane. My favorite was the backwards-walking, one-eyed, half-molten interdimensional witch Baba Yaga, who lives in a rococo haunted house with ostrich legs. I also liked the giant, torso-jawed monster that appears onscreen near the end for, like, literally three seconds; just long enough to tear a man to pieces.
Some of these beasts hail from the comics themselves, and I hope they’ve got more interesting things to do there. In some ways, the wonder of such creations serves to underline just how generic and uninspired the rest of the movie is. And to be fair, the desire to cram as many of these monsters into one feature film might even be one of the reasons why this Hellboy feels like such a jam-packed, cacophonous muddle. That might explain it, but it doesn’t excuse it.