In 2004 and 2008, writer-director Guillermo del Toro made a couple of goofy, florid comic-book movies featuring Hellboy, a red-skinned demonic offspring turned government agent in the war against paranormal dangers to humanity. Del Toro based his adaptations on the series of graphic novels by Mike Mignola, but it was his imaginative fanboy mentality that gave the pictures panache.
His touch is sorely missed in this dreary reboot from writer Andrew Cosby and director Neil Marshall, which, while cobbled together from plotlines derived from the books, comes across as a bargain-basement recycling of the character. Ron Perlman, who played Hellboy in del Toro’s movies, leaves big shoes to fill as well, and his replacement David Harbour can’t fill them either, only partially because it often sounds as though his voice has been dubbed by Seth Rogen.
Anyway, this is no sequel to the initial movies. Instead it provides “origin” flashbacks about how the infant demon was found by Trevor Buttenholm, or Broom (Ian McShane) during World War II, adopted by him and turned into a friend of mankind. Now fully grown, the gruff, wisecracking fellow is drawn into a mission to repel a threat that could spell the end of the world as we know it.
That involves the Blood Queen Nimue (Milla Jovovich), who was defeated and dismembered in the sixth century by King Arthur (Mark Stanley), wielding Excalibur, and his mentor, the wizard Merlin (Brian Gleeson). The various parts of her body were locked in chests and buried separately in remote lands, so they could not be reassembled and revive her.
Unfortunately, that’s precisely what Gruagach (“performed” in CGI form by Douglas Tait and voiced by Stephen Graham), a porcine changeling once prevented by Hellboy in its attempt to replace an infant named Alice Monaghan, is trying to do in the present. So after foiling an assassination attempt by the British Orisis Society, headed by a snooty aristocrat (Alistair Petrie) and its spooky seer (Sophie Okonedo) during a giant-hunt (they believe he will join with the queen and become mankind’s destroyer), Hellboy, aided by the grown-up Alice (Sasha Lane) and a super-agent named Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim), who has the power to morph into a jaguar, works to prevent the Blood Queen from reemerging or, failing that, stop her plan to eradicate humanity by unleashing a fast-moving plague and a passel of monsters. (The latter will become necessary, of course, because otherwise a big, effects-laden finale would be impossible.)
The plot is ludicrous, of course, but that’s hardly the problem—all superhero (or super-anti-hero) plots are by definition ridiculous. It’s the execution of it that’s fatal. Cosby and Marshall lay it out as a series of action set-pieces in which Hellboy has to face off against a gallery of fantastical CGI baddies, getting thrashed for five minutes or so before finally emerging victorious. The level of bloodletting and gore in these needlessly protracted sequences is pretty astronomical, although the fact that the figures being ripped to smithereens are mostly gargoyle-like special-effects concoctions (except for the finale, when lots of humans are similarly treated, though they look totally unreal too) is intended to minimize the level of revulsion you feel at seeing such mayhem. (It doesn’t; it just reinforces the suspicion that the grossness, and the abundance of “F” bombs, are calculated to assure an “R” rating.)
In between the battles there are tedious expository scenes—some in the form of speeches delivered in stentorian fashion by McShane, others declamations voiced by apparitions that emerge like smoke from Alice’s mouth—as well as some attempts at semi-serious father-son bonding that arise, if you can believe it, from Hellboy’s identity crisis. (Is he really good, he wonders, or merely evil waiting to be unleashed? Are the victories he wins for mankind justified?) These interruptions feel rote and uninspired, siphoning off whatever energy the picture has been able to generate.
Then there are stabs at humor, mostly in the form of Hellboy’s muttered put-downs and bad puns. These elicit very few smiles, let alone laughs, but quite a few groans. One can, to be sure, chuckle at the sight of Jovovich’s disembodied head nattering away in its box (for some viewers it might call back memories of that notorious 1958 stinker, “The Thing That Couldn’t Die”), and aficionados of Broadway musicals will appreciate her allusion, at one point, to “one brief, shining moment.” But these are small—and one must add, rather esoteric—nuggets amid the overall dross.
Harbour, it must be said, tries hard to make the title role his own, but Perlman’s shadow just proves too large for him to overcome. McShane, who’s becoming a staple in these sorts of roles (the “John Wick” series comes to mind), seems to be doing his shtick on autopilot, but Jovovich’s over-the-top villainy has its moments. Lane and Kim are merely serviceable, while Thomas Haden Church has a bland cameo as a sort of “Spy Smasher” figure in a World War II flashback.
The technical side of the movie is mediocre, with the omnipresent CGI barely passing muster, its impact further weakened by Lorenzo Senatore’s murky cinematography and Martin Bernfeld’s sloppy editing. Del Toro’s two films had style; this one, hobbled by a cheesy-looking production design by Paul Kirby, merely looks cheap. Even Benjamin Wallfisch’s score is well below his standard.
So the proper response to this totally unnecessary, and sadly misguided, resuscitation of Mignola’s comic-book character is: Hell, no!