Patton Oswalt has a bit on his Werewolves and Lollipops album about “punch-up” — the art of “improving” a screenplay by sitting in a room and workshopping jokes that can be added to it. He also describes a variation of punch-up that involves writing jokes for computer-animated movies that are already mostly finished by the time he’s brought in. The job in those cases is to think of funny jokes that people offscreen can yell over the action to lighten the mood. “I didn’t know you could make comedies that way!” Oswalt quips.

You can’t. Just look at Hellboy. Characters repeatedly yell jokes from offscreen or while their backs are turned to the camera. They are, almost without exception, not funny. And they’re indicative of a movie that feels like it was worked and reworked in the editing room almost to its literal death. Several scenes feature long, awkward voiceover narrations, and the film’s villain gets her backstory explained on two totally separate occasions, as if test screenings revealed that audiences had trouble following what was going on.

I don’t blame them. Even with all the explaining, there is a distinct lack of clarity about 2019’s Hellboy, most fundamentally around the unanswered question of why it was made at all. Two Hellboy movies already exist; one, 2008’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army, is among the best superhero movies in history. Both previous Hellboys were directed by Guillermo del Toro with his typical degree of care and horrifically beautiful imagination. Love or hate them, no one would ever mistake those Hellboys for the work of any other director. In contrast, this Hellboy, even in the fleeting moments that work, is devoid of a personality, and barely indistinguishable from any number of thrillers about monster hunters trying to stop a CGIpocalypse.

Mark Rogers

The one looming this time is engineered by an ancient witch named Nimue (Milla Jovovich) who was defeated by King Arthur and buried in pieces around England centuries earlier. Her various body parts are dug up by some kind of pig-man (Stephen Graham) apparently because — and this is one of those aforementioned vague parts — paranormal investigator Hellboy (David Harbour) was mean to him one time. So now he’s going to reawaken this witch and destroy the entire world? It seems like an overreaction to me, but hey; I’m not a pig-man. I’m sure he’s got a lot of resentment about that whole situation.

Harbour makes an appealing Hellboy. His version of the character, designed by makeup artist Joel Harlow, is a little rougher around the edges than Ron Perlman’s in the del Toro movies. His body isn’t quite so superhero perfect; his horns (supposedly sanded down to better fit into humanity) are a little cruder and grimier. He slumps and slouches through the offices of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense like the weight of the world is on his shoulders. He’s a believable otherworldly creature. Del Toro could have done something with Harbour’s Hellboy.

Nu-Hellboy director Neil Marshall basically doesn’t. There’s some acknowledgement of the tension between Hellboy’s supernatural existence and his loyalty to an organization dedicated to snuffing out all supernatural life on Earth, but nothing that wasn’t explored, in far richer detail, by del Toro. (It also made more sense as a theme in his movies, where Hellboy lives in hiding and secrecy, than in this one, where he walks freely around the world and people appear to accept him for who he is.) This Hellboy is largely a sci-fi chase story, with Harbour hunting the witch’s pieces while teaming up with a psychic (Sasha Lane) who can communicate with ghosts and an elite soldier (Daniel Dae Kim) with his own superhuman secrets.

Lionsgate

Neither of Hellboy’s previous movie sidekicks, the amphibian Abe Sapien and the fiery Liz Sherman, appear in this reboot, possibly because the extensive special effects needed to bring them to life would have been too costly. Marshall’s Hellboy looks like a decidedly cheaper affair than del Toro’s, with smaller sets, less action, and fewer magical characters. It’s a bit like the late-entry sequel in a long-running ’80s slasher series that started as an artful, serious, idea-heavy work before it slowly devolved into an opportunistic hodgepodge of jump scares and excessive gore. (The new Hellboy has a ton of both, including one sequence that left me flat-out depressed by its bloody, gratuitous violence.)

Harbour completely understands his character, and he has a few lively scenes with Ian McShane as Hellboy’s crusty father, who runs the BPRD. There’s also one surprising cameo that will make longtime Hellboy fans very happy. Otherwise, 2019’s Hellboy is as lifeless as Nimue’s doomed victims. Whatever massaging of the story took place on an Avid somewhere in Los Angeles did little to enliven things. And whoever was hired to do the punch-up did not earn their paycheck. I’m guessing it wasn’t Patton Oswalt.

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