In the sea of modern superhero movies, Hellboy has unique appeal. Mike Mignola’s Dark Horse comic book creation, a hard-drinking demon spawn who protects innocents from supernatural threats, could have been a gothic punchline on the big screen; instead, the notion of a devilish monster with good intentions came to vivid life in Guillermo del Toro’s imaginative 2004 movie and its sequel, with Ron Perlman’s smarmy red-faced investigator giving the actor his finest creation. So much about “Hellboy” worked that director Neil Marshall’s reboot doesn’t focus on changing the formula so much as burying the rough edges in ample R-rated gore, while maintaining the underlying glee.
A bloodier, sillier remix of the earlier entries in this unlikely franchise, “Hellboy” swaps Perlman for “Stranger Things” detective David Harbour, whose large frame and snarky posturing on that show was basically a Ron Perlman homage, anyway. Harbour makes for a formidable Hellboy in a visually snappy milieu that, like del Toro’s earlier entries, takes its cues from Mignola’s sardonic horror-fantasy universe. There’s plenty to enjoy about the latest absurdist odyssey, which finds Hellboy grappling with his sinister origin amidst some Arthurian gobbledygook about the coming apocalypse. However, Marshall works so hard to make the zany underworld-gone-wild formula entertaining when the entertainment value is already baked into the material. All that eager wackiness has a breaking point.
It doesn’t take long for “Hellboy” to establish the jokey arena familiar from previous entries, albeit in clunkier terms. A stylish black-and-white prologue takes us back to the Dark Ages, which, as an unseen narrator informs us, were called that “for fucking good reason,” as a bird plucks an eyeball from the socket of a dead warrior. From there we’re introduced to ultra-cheesy witch villain Nimue (Milla Jovovich), aka The Blood Queen, whom King Arthur (“Yes, that King Arthur,” the voiceover pipes in) draws and quarters before her evil can lay humanity to waste. Arthur lops off her head — blood gushing everywhere, complicating the chalky palette — and locks it away in an enchanted box, which can only be opened by a man of the cloth.
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From there, it’s Hellboy business as usual in a modern-day setting with virtually no exposition. “Hellboy” finds its protagonist tracking one of his peers from the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense to an underground wrestling competition that quickly turns into a grisly vampire battle. It might have been nice to see Perlman return to the role, but it’s still gratifying to watch the character back in action, hurling his crustacean claw at baddies while absorbing plenty of blows of his own.
As an agent from the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, Hellboy has grown used to contending with otherworldly threats, but it’s his own possible role in an end-of-days prophecy that has started to concern him. After the bureau’s kooky overseer (and Hellboy’s adopted dad) Professor Broom (Ian McShane) sends Hellboy off to London to help some giant hunters with their latest bait, the movie dives into a globe-hopping detective story built around menacing characters keen on taking down the demonic cop. Or, in the case of a newly resurrected Nimue, entice him to be the lord of a new Dark Ages rather than wasting time defending people who see him as a freak.
Of course, Hellboy’s not so easily swayed by the dark side, and Andrew Cosby’s restless script is overloaded with witty comebacks whenever one of the movie’s baddies turns up the heat. “This is not gonna work at all,” he tells Nimue, “‘cuz I’m a Capricorn, and you’re fucking nuts!” Most one-liners land, and Marshall complements them with a slack package of pop songs and rapid-fire scene transitions that suggest his team watched “Guardians of the Galaxy” to map out the formula for a snazzy fantasy that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Add the oodles of blood that dominate nearly every showdown, and “Hellboy” certainly pops with the comical debauchery that gives this setting such a devious kick.
Yet for all that emphasis on gory imagery and snappy exchanges, “Hellboy” falls short of supporting them with much depth. Hellboy’s entourage includes the undead-channeling badass Alice (“American Honey” breakout Sasha Lane, who ought to lead an action vehicle of her own), and a moody special ops figure with animalistic rage (Daniel Dae Kim). They’re both relegated to supporting roles and serve as props whenever Hellboy needs the extra help. His own crisis of confidence, as he comes to terms with his terrible origins, contains flashes of intrigue; more often, Hellboy comes across more like a caricature, Mignola’s invention in motion.
Whatever the studio wanted when it decided not to hire del Toro for a third movie, at least it found a solid replacement. Marshall is best known for directing the claustrophobic cave monster movie “The Descent,” but in recent years, he has shown a penchant for grotesque medieval storytelling. His blood-soaked medieval drama “Centurion” now looks like a dry run for the gigs he landed on “Game of Thrones,” and the latest iteration of “Hellboy” does seem to make a play for diehard fans of HBO’s fire-and-ice epic. Despite the messy narrative, the movie delivers a kind of macabre looniness in tune with its precedents, including a menacing visit from exiled Hellboy antagonist Baba Yaga — a grotesque, cackling being who lives in an inter-dimensional house on stilts and looks like she escaped from the “Dark Crystal.” The character’s fleeting appearance is more intimidating than any of the latest twists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and could have anchored a better movie.
“Hellboy” deserves points for the sheer gall of its absurd showdowns, including one that finds Hellboy joining forces with a giant cheetah to take down an anthropomorphized warthog. But by the time we see massive, sinewy monstrosities march across Europe to destroy national landmarks, the routine has grown tedious. By comparison, del Toro’s ensemble pieces were downright Altmanesque, lingering in Hellboy’s colorful inner circle without hurrying to the next big scene.
Perhaps it’s appropriate that the 2019 version of “Hellboy” is busy to an exhausting degree, overloaded with apocalyptic fears, and seemingly endless in its pileup of twists. But it’s hard to read much into a movie less invested in shrewd observations than in stuffing as much lore as possible into 120 minutes. As the faces and circumstances speed by (Thomas Haden Church as Lobster Johnson! And was that Abe Sapien?), it’s hard not to view “Hellboy” as an overzealous attempt to revisit the content of del Toro films without matching their sophistication. Marshall’s version only summarizes the substance that made those movies so imaginative in the first place. As much as it attempts to inject fresh life into the franchise, it winds up feeling more like the walking dead.
“Hellboy” opens theatrical on April 12, 2019.