Sometimes, “more adult” does not mean “more mature.” That’s the central problem facing “Hellboy,” the reboot of the comic book character popularized in films by Guillermo del Toro.
The original 2004 movie and its 2008 sequel were PG-13 affairs, with a focus on the demonic antihero’s lovable streak. Under the direction of Neil Marshall, a filmmaker with his own horror/fantasy bona fides, this Hellboy curses, eviscerates, flays and disembowels. Marshall and screenwriter Andrew Cosby went overboard with their R-rating, introducing so much gore and profanity that it, quite frankly, gets dull. The flat performances and incoherent story do not help matters.
Created by Mike Mignola in 1993, Hellboy is a literal demon from hell who lives on Earth. As part of a paranormal government agency, he fights for the good guys, keeping other monsters from wreaking havoc. Ron Perlman played Hellboy in the del Toro films, and here David Harbour – best known as Chief Hopper from Netflix’s “Stranger Things” – takes over. The two actors look similar in their heavy makeup, complete with red skin and devil horns filed down to stumps, and they have similar evil plots to overturn.
This time, Hellboy faces off against the Blood Queen (Milla Jovovich), a witch who wants revenge on humankind. Along his quest to defeat her, Hellboy uncovers a secret from his past (of course he does). Cosby hardly wavers from the typical comic book formula, right down to cheesy jokes and a final showdown.
Marshall is best known for directing the horror thriller “The Descent” and two memorable, battle-filled “Game of Thrones” episodes, so he clearly knows how to evoke epic scale on a limited budget. “Hellboy” hints at that sense of spectacle, like when he fights three famished giants in an open field. The characters move and clash with plausible heft, and there is an affable slapstick quality to the fight, even if it ends gruesomely. But for each imaginative sequence, there is a repetitive scene with little sense of imagination or surprise.
At one point, Hellboy and his colleagues must fight zombies bursting out of the ground. The actors seem to realize this scene is just filler, so any potential energy or excitement is lost. There are some throwaway gross-out moments, such as when gigantic demons lay siege to London and a point-legged one impales several innocent bystanders like a kebab. But the funny thing about overabundant gore is that it loses its potential for shock when viscera is more common than anything suspenseful.
One way to overcome a dearth of memorable action is through memorable characters, but the film also fails on that front. As a literal demon on Earth, Hellboy is torn between humanity and the underworld, and Harbour cannot sell that anxiety. His dramatic scenes fall curiously flat, and his comic one-liners inspire little more than stony silence. Unsurprisingly, the only actor who elevates the material is Ian McShane, who plays Hellboy’s adoptive father. His droll delivery suggests he is the only actor with any self-awareness, although he plays a similar character in the “John Wick” films with more wicked fun.
If anything, “Hellboy” is a testament to del Toro’s talents as a filmmaker. Through evocative creatures and production design, he created a more inventive world than what we typically see from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or its DC equivalent. There is a moment in this new film when Hellboy regrows his horns, wielding a fiery sword as he rides a huge beast and vanquishes the damned on hell’s surface. If a film’s best attempt at over-the-top imagery inspires little more than a halfhearted shrug, something has gone terribly wrong.