How bad can a movie be? “Hellboy” expands the possibilities. It’s brain- numbing and head-splitting (literally the latter, since the cleaving of skulls is a recurrent motif). It’s a seemingly interminable succession of decapitations, dismemberments, amputations and impalements interrupted every now and then by semicoherent pieces of story in which pieces of a 5th century sorceress figure significantly—her name is Nimue, aka the Blood Queen, and she’s embodied—more about her body in a moment—by Milla Jovovich. Hellboy himself used to be a touchingly anguished creature when he was played by Ron Perlman in two excellent films directed by Guillermo del Toro. Now he’s an elaborate prosthesis encasing David Harbour. Getting a fix on his performance isn’t easy; most of it depends on his voice, which is digitally redirected to subterranean frequencies. But Harbour was a strong presence in the TV series “Stranger Things,” and he does what he can here with Hellboy’s dual nature. (Is he good or bad, man or beast? One thing we learn this time is that he’s heavy-handed, or at least not light-fingered; every time he taps his iPhone the screen breaks. But the problem isn’t Hellboy so much as the chaos that swirls, bleeds, dribbles, drips, slithers, oozes, erupts and explodes around him.
No one needed another “Hellboy,” let alone a shoddy contraption with a single-word title suggesting that it’s an original, rather than the cynical enterprise it turns out to be. A third installment would have been welcome if anyone had come up with the slightest trace of originality. But this film, directed coarsely by Neil Marshall from an idiotic screenplay by Andrew Cosby, combines the worst of all worlds. For one thing, it steals quite shamelessly from the previous films—and yes, I’m talking about theft, not recapitulation. Remember that setpiece about Hellboy’s birth during World War II in a Nazi laboratory off the coast of Scotland, with Rasputin the Mad Monk in attendance? It’s back again with a bit of rejiggering, but no value added. Hellboy is summoned to England to deal with what he’s told is a giant problem—meaning giants, extremely hungry and misshapen giants. In reality, though, it’s just another outbreak of the digital plague—too many creatures devoid of substance or consequence. In search of ersatz gravitas the movie runs remarkably dumb riffs on historical and horror tropes that include King Arthur’s sword, Excalibur—how did they think of that?—and King Arthur slaying the sorceress, Nimue, then chopping her up and burying her various components in separate graves, where they remain, as remains are wont to do, for 1,500 years. As it happens, Nimue is the best thing, or things, in the production, thanks to Milla Jovovich’s rather elegant performance. Her voice, free of digital finagling, rarely rises above a seductive murmur.
I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.