Written By: François-Noël Vanasse
Dog Soldiers (2002) is a pretty good movie about soldiers stumbling upon monsters killing people in the English countryside. The Descent (2005) is a pretty good movie about spelunkers discovering monsters killing people deep underground. Doomsday (2008) is a pretty good movie about the collapse of Britain into a violent lawless state after being destroyed by a plague. These films were all directed by Neil Marshall who also happened to direct Hellboy (2019). Hellboy is a movie about soldiers fighting Monsters to stop a plague from destroying Britain. So you could say Marshall is playing to his strengths here.
While the film is obviously having fun, the trouble is that Hellboy feels like three movies stitched together. Or perhaps like the bloated middle film in a Marvel Studios trilogy. It’s got a few excellent action set pieces it tries to give room to breathe, a frankly embarrassing amount of exposition, (three full flashbacks worth!), and it has to fit the actual movie into the little bit of room that’s left. Unfortunately those cracks in the 2 hour run-time aren’t enough to foster audience interest or empathy in the characters, let alone sustain it.
Most egregiously, the film forgets to make us care about its star. As a result the laughs don’t land and the emotion falls flat. David Harbour is a capable actor but beneath all that make up it can be a struggle for anyone to get things across. Soulful silences are not going to do the heavy lifting here. “Show don’t tell” is an admirable mantra but when all you’re showing me is a big red goof while you talk my ear off about prophecies and destinies any nuance is going to get lost in the shuffle.
Hellboy (2019) is a big loud Urban Fantasy with plenty of gore and some downright hallucinogenic demons. If that’s all you’re looking for then there’s plenty to love in the creatures and ghosts and magic and world of Hellboy. It just seems to all be pleasant waste of time tacked onto a frankly disappointing bickering Father-Son story. Ian McShane is a fantastic actor but the bombastic no-nonsense dickhead he’s been asked to play for this movie is such a far cry from the comic’s quiet academic Trevor Bruttenholm.
We’re told an awful lot about Hellboy’s relationship with his adoptive father but rarely get a chance to see it. McShane walks in and out of the movie like an irritated breeze. Hellboy was brought to Earth in 1945 in an occult Nazi ritual and yet his relationship with Bruttenholm is one of a petulant teen. Hellboy’s arrested development had previously been mined before for the big screen by Guillermo del Toro and Ron Perlman, but that 2004 film leaned into the character’s childlike innocence. A result of growing up in the 40s and 50s and being cooped up inside secret facilities his entire life. He might smoke cigars and drink beers and be six decades old but he wears his feelings on his sleeve and chafes under his father’s overprotectivess keeping his existence a secret from the world.
2019 Hellboy is Mad At Dad because he thinks daddy doesn’t love him enough which is, frankly, a baffling point of view for someone who has spent 70 years hunting man-eating monsters with Ian McShane. Relatable stakes like a relationship between a parent and child are a fantastic way to ground a fantastical story. Unfortunately, while the fantasy is given center stage the relationships, especially this presumably central one, are never (or at least rarely) given the spotlight despite book-ending the film.
Anyone who knows me knows I’m a sucker for daddy issues in stories. This one I just found irritating. It wouldn’t take a lot to fix Hellboy. An extra twenty or thirty minutes spent on the character. A lot of chucked exposition (be confident in the actors and scenes, storytellers) and a re-ordered story. Don’t be so afraid of retreading laid groundwork that you lose a functional movie in the process. Hellboy ends with a sequel hook and maybe some interesting room for the characters to grow but with its underwhelming performance at the box office to date it is perhaps unlikely to get another turn in theatres. Still they managed to make 5 Underworlds so I wish this monster-punching franchise the best of luck and a promise that I’ll always be there to watch Big Red snark at the apocalypse.