It may be stretching things to say that Hellboy was the role Ron Perlman was born to play, but in Guillermo del Toro’s stylish and sturdy “Hellboy” (2004) and its spectacular eye-candy sequel, “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” (2008), there’s no doubt that Perlman connected with the character in an uncanny way. Part of it was how his physiognomy — the thick features and sculptured scowl — already seemed to get him halfway there. He may have been playing a glowering man-devil with mutton-chop sideburns, sawed-off demon horns he wore like goggles, and skin the color of chicken tandoori, but it never felt as if Perlman was buried under the makeup. To a remarkable degree, he fused with it, inhabiting the character as a kind of jaunty mutant handyman — a lug of evil-killing.
Perlman exited the role when he learned that del Toro, on a different page from the franchise’s backers, wasn’t going to be helming the third film in the series. But even given that Mike Mignolia’s Dark Horse Comics superhero fantasy was set for a new actor and director, was it really necessary to make the third “Hellboy” film into that soggy and laborious old thing, a reboot? In the new “Hellboy,” David Harbour, from “Stranger Things,” takes over the role and does a perfectly fine job with it, muttering bombs-away wisecracks (“I saw Ra once in the underworld. He’s a close talker”) in between blood-and-goo-spewing hulk-v.-CGI creature-feature showdowns. But you’re more aware than you were when Perlman played the part that you’re watching an actor made up to look like a superfreak demon colossus.
Harbour’s Hellboy has an angsty crestfallen vibe, with more easily jangled nerves. He’s still a semi-amiable bruiser, but this Hellboy doesn’t quite pop the way that Perlman’s did. His mopey long-haired biker look suggests Vincent Gallo after a very bad night, but temperamentally Harbour comes closer to the genial cynicism of John Goodman — which is to say, Hellboy may be the antihero of superheroes, but in the new “Hellboy” he’s more slovenly than dangerous.
That’s true of the movie as well. It’s lunging to be a badass hard-R epic, but it’s basically a pile of origin-story gobbledygook, frenetic and undercooked, full of limb-hacking, eye-gouging monster battles as well as an atmosphere of apocalyptic grunge that signifies next to nothing. Playing Hellboy, David Harbour has a tough act to follow and does well, but the real tough act to follow is del Toro’s. He staged these likable but flagrantly derivative galoot-superhero adventures with a dynamism that made them better than a lot of more “important” comic-book franchises.
The new director, Neil Marshall (“The Descent”), keeps throwing fantastical beasts at you — a trio of towering ogres who look like they were hit with the medieval ugly stick, a slavering foul-mouthed cockney warthog named Gruagach (nicely voiced by Stephen Graham) whose job it is to gather up the head and body parts of the ancient Blood Queen, Nimue (Milla Jovovich), which were buried in separate caskets after she was severed into pieces in the sixth century by King Arthur and his mighty Excalibur. Can the Blood Queen be put back together like a sorceress Humpty Dumpty, so that she can once again rain a plague down upon human civilization?
These and other questions sit there with an awesome lack of urgency. The Blood Queen, played by Jovovich with a standard aristocratic flippancy, keeps trying to lure Hellboy into joining forces with her, exploiting the dark side of his divided nature (he’s part incubus and part human, and this film’s origin narrative lets us know that he had a rather significant ancestor). But Hellboy never seems too tempted — either that, or the temptation just isn’t well dramatized, leaving the movie with a hole where its most fascinating conflict should be.
In the earlier films, Hellboy, in his capacity as an indentured agent for the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, had a lively team of damaged comrades worthy of the X-Men, but here he’s got what feels like a slightly bent book club: the feisty Alice (Sasha Lane), who the film spiritually links to Alice in Wonderland (and whose main job seems to be to vomit out psychic holograms), and Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim), a dyspeptic Japanese-American soldier who, due to the encounter that scarred his face, can transform into a hissing jaguar.
The King Arthur and Alice myths are two of several poured into this dark Cuisinart of a movie, in which Hellboy is attacked from every quarter. The stuffy sinister Osiris Club recruits him to be a giant-killer, then tries to assassinate him, and even his adoptive father, the cagey Trevor Bruttenholm (with Ian McShane taking over the role from John Hurt), doesn’t always seem to be on his side. The tone of the movie, and of Harbour’s performance, is a tongue-in-cheek version of: poor Hellboy! There are a handful of moments where he’s pictured as his inner blazing demon self, minus the trench coat, with those thrusting longhorns (the look inspired by the Tim Curry character in “Legend”), and you realize that that’s Hellboy’s whole problem; he can’t fully be himself. He’s the devil as civilized neurotic. But we’ve been through all this with him before, in two much tighter and more satisfying movies. He rules again in “Hellboy,” but in a perfunctory and forgettable way, like a superhero who got locked out of his universe.