The movie begins with a ponderous flashback, accompanied by a flabby hunk of narration. In it, a seductive witch (Milla Jovovich) and her slobbering demons square off against King Arthur of the Britons and his faithful wizard Merlin. No, you read that right. The witch is betrayed and defeated, although she vows to return for vengeance. Flashforward to nowsies, where Hellboy (David Harbour) and his squad of demon hunters keep our world safe from paranormal shenanigans. For those who missed the previous films, Hellboy is a burly, crimson-tinted demon who sports a Popeye-strong right hand and a resistance to fire. During WWII, a newborn Hellboy was rescued from the clutches of Nazi scientists by Dr. Broom (Ian McShane) and raised to join the forces of good. Now, with our evil witch rising from the grave, Hellboy teams up with a spunky medium (Sasha Lane) and a dickhead military dude (Daniel Dae Kim) to confront this apocalyptic threat. And wouldn’t ya know it? Hellboy and the stitched bitch witch share a common destiny! That’s such a crazy coincidence, I almost tossed my popcorn in the aisle.
The plot of Hellboy feels like somebody telling you a story, chugging a beer at ten-minute intervals. For the first act, we’ve still got things relatively together. But, by the sixty-minute mark, we’ve descended into slurring, staggering gibberish: There’s the Sword in the Stone, a Pigman with a chip on his shoulder, a visit to Merlin’s grave, a dude that can turn into a jaguar, and…c’mon movie, you’re drunk. Let’s spill you into a cab and get you home.
Sure, the del Toro movies had a sturdy sense of weirdness. They also had a charm and humanity to them: Doug Jones and David Hyde Pierce played Abe Sapien as a creature whose bold intellect belied the fragile being beneath. John Hurt brought gravitas to the wizened Dr. Broom, as he tried to mold his demon-son into a superhero. Finally, Perlman anchored both films with a performance so spot-on, it seemed effortless and hopelessly difficult at the same time.
That said, every part needs an understudy and David Harbour isn’t a bad Option B. He wears the fire-engine makeup and sanded-down horns well, and groans his dialogue with all the proper intensity. In fact, most of the actors do solid work. Jovovich has some fun with the burning fury of her antagonist. McShane makes for a decent tough-love dad. It’s just too bad this tepid material lets them all down. In the end, I guess even great singers can only do so much with subpar songs.
(Unlike the previous Hellboy offerings, this one is a strong R-rating. Parental discretion is definitely advised.)