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‘Hellboy’ is a hell of a mess

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One of the things that people sometimes forget about comic books is that they can (and do) get a lot weirder than your standard superhero business – and that that can be a good thing.

Take Mike Mignola’s Dark Horse Comics creation Hellboy. That’s some weird, over-the-top supernatural stuff – eldritch strangeness that is barely adjacent to the usual superhero fare. And yet, that character preceded the MCU to the silver screen, with movies in 2004 and 2008. And thanks largely to director Guillermo del Toro and star Rob Perlman, they worked.

Unfortunately, with the new “Hellboy,” neither of those gentlemen are involved. Instead, we get Neil Marshall and David Harbour, respectively – talented folks, yes, but for whatever reason, they fail to dig into the character in the same narratively engaging manner. Instead, we get a big, loud, gory mess, a jumbled-up and chaotic slog of a movie that can’t be salvaged despite the game effort put forth by Harbour, whose delightfully slovenly dad-charisma is undermined by prosthetics and CGI.

We open in the midst of the Dark Ages, where King Arthur (Mark Stanley, “Dark River”) and Merlin (Brian Gleeson, “Phantom Thread”) are doing battle with the forces of darkness conjured forth by Nimue the Blood Queen (Milla Jovovich, “Future World”). They defeat her and in an effort to keep her forever contained, they chop her body into pieces to be scattered to all corners of the British Isles.

(This doesn’t work as well as you’d think.)

In the present day, Hellboy (David Harbour, TV’s “Stranger Things”) is a demon who has been raised among humans. He’s a hard drinker with a little bit of an attitude. Along with his father Professor Bruttenholm (Ian McShane, TV’s “American Gods”), Hellboy works for the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, fighting against the forces of evil wherever they might crop up.

When Hellboy is enlisted by England’s Osiris Club to help hunt a trio of giants rampaging through the countryside, he quickly becomes embroiled in an even more sinister conspiracy. An old enemy named Gruagach (Stephen Graham, “Yardie”) is trying to reassemble the Blood Queen so that she might finally unleash her armies of darkness upon the world.

Oh, and there’s a prophecy (because of course there’s a prophecy) saying that Hellboy himself is the harbinger of the end of the world. So there’s that, too.

Hellboy is teamed up with a paranormal agent named Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim, TV’s “Hawaii Five-0”) – much to their mutual chagrin – but is also reunited with a young lady he saved back when she was an infant. Alice Monaghan (Sasha Lane, “After Everything”) has grown into a powerful seer – and she’s the only one here that he trusts.

It’s up to this unlikely trio to prevent Nimue from fulfilling her dark goals … and to keep Hellboy from becoming the world-devouring force of evil that the prophecy proclaims him to be.

The unfortunate reality is that this new “Hellboy” comes up far short of its predecessors. It simply doesn’t measure up in terms of the spirit of the proceedings. While the technical execution is fine, there’s no real soul to the storytelling. Obviously, it doesn’t have to be Shakespeare, but there has to be some degree of narrative investment. Without that, you get this, a film that seems content to coast from gory CGI rampage to gory CGI rampage, relying on a handful of middling jokes and some relationships that never earn the emotional investment they seem to demand from the audience.

Again, the film looks good, but that aesthetic exists largely in service to over-the-top visceral violence – lots of head splitting and pulling of entrails and other extreme bloodshed. The end result is an overall dulling of the impact, with screams becoming little more than white noise.

However, while “Hellboy” doesn’t work, that’s not Harbour’s fault, who is clearly up for anything and really gives it his all in this part. It’s a strong performance, one that both respects the previous work by Ron Perlman and avoids mimicry of same. His Hellboy brings a different swagger to the table – one that allows Harbour’s natural gifts to shine from beneath the bushel of makeup and special effects.

The rest of the ensemble is solid as well. McShane is a delight as always; he’s all edgy charm as the Professor. Monaghan is charming and brash in just the right way, while Kim really captures Daimio’s by-the-book suspicion and exasperation. Even Jovovich – who’s always been a bit hit-or-miss – is pretty good here; she’s at her best when she’s allowed to be a stylized weirdo.

Ultimately, “Hellboy” fails to engage on the level that the previous films did. You would think that in the current climate of constant comic book content, this movie would be even more successful than the ones that came before. Instead, it is far less so, a blaring, boring slog that should have been better. And while the stage was definitely set for a sequel, it might be best for everyone to simply walk away.

[2 out of 5]

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