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Review: ‘Hellboy’ makes a gory, nasty and largely pointless return

David Harbour as ‘Hellboy’ and Sasha Lane as ‘Alice Monoghan’ in HELLBOY. Photo Credit: Mark Rogers.
David Harbour and Sasha Lane in the movie “Hellboy.”
(Mark Rogers)
Film Critic

One of the grisliest scenes in the new “Hellboy” — and it has plenty of competition — shows a horrific plague being unleashed upon London. Massive cracks run up and down the streets, opening portals to the fiery depths below. Indescribably grotesque creatures rise up, snatching up poor, unsuspecting Brits and tearing them bloodily asunder; one monster strolls past with human bodies impaled on its leg, like a walking shish kebab. I couldn’t help but think: Man, this Brexit documentary is wild.

I kid, sort of. A spattery inanity that feels less like a reboot than an aftershock, “Hellboy” may offer an unwittingly truthful snapshot of a nation devouring itself from within. But it’s too nastily single-minded to offer much in the way of political allegory, too enamored of its severed heads and dangling eyeballs and other exposed viscera. It was directed by the British horror maven Neil Marshall, whose credits include the supremely effective 2005 chiller “The Descent,” but who has since veered off into ever more fantastical spectacles of computer-generated carnage (“Doomsday,” “Centurion”).

His new movie has the misfortune of arriving on a cinematic landscape already crowded with comic book figures and their endless apocalyptic skirmishes, which wasn’t the case when Guillermo del Toro’s “Hellboy” burst onto the scene 15 years ago. That movie — along with its 2008 sequel, “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” — was as poetic and passionate a cinematic treatment of Mike Mignola’s comic book creation as could be hoped for. Ron Perlman slipped beautifully into Hellboy’s hulking red physique, his shaved-off horns and hard-boiled detective’s patois, and Del Toro enshrined the character with such love that he effectively made his geek enthusiasms your own.

Perhaps the best defense that can be mustered in support of Marshall’s “Hellboy” is that the director’s affection for the material is no less real or exuberant than Del Toro’s; it’s just a lot more crudely, monotonously expressed. The movie seems to spring from a curious awareness of how unnecessary it is, and it responds in the manner of an uninvited guest, with no interest in behaving or ingratiating itself. We are hurled, with a rude but fitting lack of ceremony, into a smorgasbord of R-rated horror and fantasy conventions, replete with weird detours into Arthurian legend, Mayan mythology and Slavic folklore, and rendered in the director’s preferred visual idiom of disemboweled corpses and beautifully art-directed entrails.

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Milla Jovovich in the movie “Hellboy.”
(Mark Rogers)

The first decapitation takes place within minutes, during an amped-up Dark Ages prologue that shows King Arthur vanquishing Nimue, a.k.a. the Blood Queen (Milla Jovovich), an evil enchantress who seeks to empower the world’s demons and monsters. Naturally, although Nimue’s body is hacked into small pieces which are then meticulously strewn all over Britain, her defeat is only temporary. She will cross paths centuries later with Hellboy (David Harbour, of “Stranger Things” fame), whose World War II birth story — how he was brought into the human world by Nazis but promptly rescued by the Allies — is handily recapped here. (Keep an eye out for a camera-wielding propagandist identified in the credits as “Leni Rafenstahl.”)

Those dark origins still cast a pall over Hellboy in the present, filling him with doubts about Professor Broom (a welcome Ian McShane), who raised him and brought him into the ranks of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. After stopping by Tijuana to catch a gorier-than-usual lucha libre match, Hellboy finds himself on assignment in the U.K., where an old historical society and a white-eyed psychic (Sophie Okonedo) lead him on what seems at first like a routine giant-hunting mission in the countryside. But several plot twists and vicious impalements later, he finds himself stranded even more deeply in the maze of his own conflicted identity.

Hellboy is, of course, a spawn of the devil, as evidenced by the long tail and the sledgehammer-like stone instrument he calls a right arm. Troublingly, he is one of the otherworldly outcasts who stand to benefit from the schemes of the Blood Queen, who has been reconstructed and resurrected by a giant boar (Stephen Graham, doing the grunt work). But there is also no denying Hellboy’s singular humanity, a quality that the appealing Harbour tries to manifest with much the same world-weary gravitas that Perlman managed, though this movie gives him far less time and room to breathe.

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Humanity has other faces here, too: Daniel Dae Kim snarls up a storm as Ben Daimio, a fierce BPRD ally who shows his claws early, and Sasha Lane makes a formidable foil as Hellboy’s old friend Alice Monaghan, whose ability to communicate with the dead involves a particularly inventive form of projectile vomiting. But they too struggle to be seen and heard amid this movie’s relentless visual-effects onslaught, its gnashings of razor-sharp teeth and dark rivulets of blood.

Marshall is both an old-school gorehound and a fastidious builder of worlds. You can see his aesthetic priorities in every frame; it’s there in the gleeful layering of Lewis Carroll references, the loving attention to decomposed flesh and oozy textures, the creepy-crawly spin he puts on such canonical horror figures as Baba Yaga and her chicken-legged hut. His gusto is easy to admire if not always share, and it gives this movie a yucky, exhausting integrity. This “Hellboy” can be something to see. It can also be a giant bore.

“Hellboy” is back with David Harbour, Milla Jovovich, Ian McShane, Sasha Lane and Daniel Dae Kim.

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‘Hellboy’

Rated: R, for strong bloody violence and gore throughout, and language

Running time: 2 hours

Playing: In general release

justin.chang@latimes.com | Twitter: @JustinCChang

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