Hellboy (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Hellboy is director Guillermo del Toro's second venture behind the cameras for a comic-book themed motion picture. However, although the hyper-stylized setting and kinetic action sequences share a kinship with those in Blade 2, Hellboy showcases a lighter tone with a hero who doesn't take himself as seriously. In fact, while Hellboy doesn't quite cross the line into open comedy, it comes close. The film bears more of a resemblance to Ghostbusters and Men in Black (with a little of The Mummy thrown in for good measure) than to a traditional superhero motion picture. This isn't Batman or Superman.

Hellboy opens in October 1944 Scotland, where a team of Nazis is trying to recruit otherworldly aid to Hitler's failing cause. Their efforts are foiled, but not before a creature passes through an open portal - a baby demon who is nicknamed "Hellboy." Taken under the wing of American scientist Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt), Hellboy (Ron Perlman) grows up as an agent for the shady FBI Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. (Their purpose: "There are things that go bump in the night - we are the ones who bump back.") There, along with fellow "freaks" Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), an aquatic type, and Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), a firestarter, he defends the United States from supernatural dangers. The latest threat is Rasputin (Karel Roden), the resurrected Russian spiritualist who has made a pact with a group of dark gods. In return for everlasting life and great powers, he will open their way to Earth. In order to do so, he must convert Hellboy to his cause, or, at the very least, blackmail him. And Red (as his friends call him) has two weaknesses - his affection for his adopted father and his unvoiced love for Liz.

Despite several drawbacks, Hellboy nevertheless succeeds in entertaining. For Ron Perlman, who has labored for most of his career under the baggage from the cult TV program "Beauty and the Beast," this is a kick-ass performance. Like the movie, he exudes attitude - a beefed-up, red-skinned version of X-Men's Wolverine (complete with the cigar, but no "bub"). He has plenty of one-liners, and delivers them with sufficient bite that they don't sound cheesy. It's no stretch to say that Perlman is the primary reason Hellboy works.

Guillermo del Toro knows what he's doing; this is not just a paycheck job. (He called Blade 2 a "dress rehearsal" to show studios what he could do within the genre.) The film's look is perfect for the subject matter - dark and gothic, with even the "real" settings presented using rich colors and deep blacks. The action scenes are suitably over-the-top, and all the more fun for it. After a slow beginning, the pace doesn't flag, and the film does a decent job of developing Hellboy's character. The humor is what sets Hellboy apart from many of the other, recent comic book adaptations, and, unlike in Batman & Robin, it's not silly and inappropriate. In many ways, this is a better sequel to Men in Black than Men in Black II.

Hellboy is a relentlessly politically incorrect superhero. Batman would be appalled, and the Man of Steel would have an apoplexy. Despite his size, facial deformities (shaved-down horns), and red skin, he has a humans soul. An intriguing subplot involves Hellboy's jealousy when he thinks a fellow agent is wooing his dream girl. The scenes of Hellboy spying on the pair are priceless. The movie's wit isn't limited to that situation and the one-liners. There's a wry tone to the whole production, right down to the references to Hellboy comic books.

Coherence and plotting are not amongst Hellboy's strong suits. The movie does not stand up to any kind of thoughtful inspection and the muddled finale is nonsensical. The computer generated effects look like something out of a video game. No matter how slick the CGI appears, there's never any doubt that these scenes were put together in post-production. Sometimes, directors have too many toys to play with. It's a shame, because the makeup work (by Rick Baker) on Perlman is top-notch.

It's a good thing that Perlman has such a strong presence, because no one else leaves much of an impression. Selma Blair, as the love interest, is easy on the eyes, but that's about it. (And the computer fire that wreathes her body is laughably bad.) John Hurt looks like he's about 80 years old, and seems to be around so he can make all sorts of dire predictions. Doug Jones' Abe (voice provided by David Hyde Pierce) is an interesting creature, but he's all-but-written out by the halfway point. Rupert Evans, as Hellboy's human sidekick, John Myers, is boring. And Karel Roden's Rasputin is a dull villain. (The ghastly monsters he summons are far more intimidating.)

My sense is that most comic book aficionados, regardless of whether or not they are familiar with Mike Mignola's Dark Horse series, will enjoy what Hellboy has to offer. It's a throwback to the '80s, with a strong hero (15 years ago, this role would have been perfect for Schwarzenegger), well-crafted action sequences, and an undemanding storyline. It's more like what one typically expects from summer fare, but, with the blockbuster seasons starting earlier every year, an April release date isn't surprising. Hellboy likely won't be the best comic-to-screen adaptation this year, but, squared off against its early-season challenger, Marvel's The Punisher, this is the winner.

Hellboy (United States, 2004)

Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: 2004-04-02
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1