Hellboy feels like a two-hour “previously on Supernatural” recap, somehow set to even worse music. Anyone who has ever begrudgingly loved a “freak of the week” genre TV show and wondered what it would be like with all the filler crap cut out now has an answer. A series of expository explanations frequently interrupted by cool monsters, Hellboy has been somewhat understandably critically savaged. This, despite pretty much delivering exactly what it promised. It is a messy, awkwardly vulgar, macabre adventure that can’t decide how campy to be, which is ultimately far more entertaining than many self-assured, boring blockbusters.
You know a movie doesn’t trust its audience or itself when the opening scene includes a voiceover narrating the very things you are watching happen. As we see King Arthur slay and carve the evil Nimue (Milla Jovovich) into pieces, Ian McShane explains that King Arthur once slayed and carved the evil Nimue into pieces. In present day, a dead-ringer for Bebop from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles attempts to reassemble Nimue, whose name is totally pronounced like whatever the word is in the beginning of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
The half-demon Hellboy (David Harbour) and his allies, Alice (Sasha Lane) and Major Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim), must prevent Nimue from opening the doors to hell and ushering in the apocalypse. Not that the plot is hackneyed, but the aforementioned Supernatural has done this annually for 15 years. All character development is wholly abandoned in favor of simply running from one weird monster fight to another. Some are dementedly great, like Hellboy’s reckoning with Baba Yaga. Others are decidedly not, like the frequent use of poorly CGI-ed snot ghosts.
Look, no argument can be made that director Neil Marshall and writer Andrew Cosby have united to form some unassailable masterpiece. Jovovich is the only one being hyperbolically campy, Harbour either screams or mumbles every line of dialogue, and Thomas Haden Church steals the show with his brief turn as an exhausted but narcissistic Nazi puncher named Lobster Johnson. Hellboy is everything all at once all the time, which is an approach that can both never cohesively work and yet never cease to at least somewhat entertain.
The most frustrating part for folks who were geeked for an R-rated go-round with the giant-fisted ghoul-smasher is that it is always so close to exactly right without ever achieving it. For example, with apologies to Marshall and company, Taika Waititi set the bar for music played over epic battles against the hordes of hell at Led Zeppelin. Mötley Crüe is not an adequate replacement. For anything, really. Honestly, an early music cue in the film is maybe the best description of the entire experience. As our hero wrestles a luchador turned into a vampire, a Spanish-language cover of Scorpions’ “Rock You Like a Hurricane” plays. Just like Hellboy itself, it’s not “good” so much as it is confusingly amusing, wholly unexpected, and almost super fun.
This review first appeared in The Reader of Omaha, Nebraska.