STARRING: Ron Perlman, John Hurt, Rupert Evans, Selma Blair, Jeffrey Tambor, Karel Roden, Corey Johnson, David Hyde Pierce, Doug Jones, Biddy Hodson

2004, 132 Minutes, Directed by: Guillermo Del Toro


Hellboy is what you’d get after playing video games like Return to Castle Wolfenstein and Doom 3-D for twenty hours solid and declaring “well, why the *%&! shouldn’t there be a movie like this?” I knew I was in for a treat when, within the first few minutes, the narrator had announced that he was “President Roosevelt’s paranormal advisor” and that “the Nazis were combining science and black magic.” If this movie were any more over-the-top, we might have another Kill Bill on our hands.

Let’s quickly check off just some of the things you’re likely to encounter in the world of Hellboy. We got the mad monk Rasputin, resurrected and on the payroll of the Third Reich. We got two reanimated corpses, one wisecracking and the other adept at kung-fu. We got a secret government agency that fights the supernatural. We got magic bullets, straight from the Vatican. We got four-eyed hell hounds that clone themselves every time you kill one. We visit an endless parade of underground laboratories, Gothic cemeteries, abandoned subway stations, and spooky catacombs. We get a devil filing down his horns with a power sander.

We get a mad scientist with the requisite tiny glasses and wild white hair. We meet a surgery addict who has no eyelids. We get to see the moon turned into a portal to Hades. We have books “not officially condoned by the Church,” that have instructions on how to alternately raise the dead or kill the undead. You know, whichever. We enter a world where a job as “night watchman” or “security guard” is practically a death sentence. We hear so many Eastern European accents but nary a word in any language besides English. If all this sounds stupid, you’re probably right. But if you’re fighting off a smirk, then Hellboy is a movie for you.

"You'd think that a life blasting monsters with a revolver the size of Dirk's Diggler would be enough for any man!"

Enter Hellboy (actor Ron Perlman beneath a lot of prosthetics), a demon brought into the world of the living when he was just a baby and lured to the side of goodness by two Baby Ruths and a warm towel. Our world is a little colder than what he’s used to. Now he’s all grown up, has broken off his horns, and fights the forces of evil—including the aforementioned Russian monk (Karel Roden), hell hounds, and walking dead—on behalf of the U.S. government. Hellboy—or HB, as his friends call him—is joined by his adopted father (John Hurt, in an apparently rare moment of sobriety) and a slippery fish guy (Doug Jones, voiced by Frasier’s David Hyde Pierce) who reads books, minds, and what’s just happened to inanimate objects.

You would think a life blasting monsters with a revolver the size of Dirk’s Diggler would be enough for any man, but Hellboy is starting to get cabin fever from being cooped up in the underground laboratory all the time. And he’s also having personal problems; what with his special lady’s (Selma Blair) decision to trade the crime-fighting lifestyle for a quiet room at the local sanatorium. She can shoot flames out of her hands. We’re introduced to all this by a young FBI agent (Rupert Evans), whose basic personality is as average as possible.

Most of the movie’s humor comes from the characters, and the movie itself, being at one moment in total awe of the supernatural, and in the next being completely accustomed to it (the others agents casually refer to Hellboy as “Red” and the fish guy as “Blue”). With that approach, Perlman’s HB is quickly able to become the sympathetic centre of the movie. The greatest accomplishment of all the makeup and trickery used to make him blood red, horned, fanged, and as a big as a refrigerator with arms and a tail, is that none of it smothers his personality. Despite all the artifice, we are still able to read his expressions and body language.

Perlman has made a career being at home and believable amidst special effects and beneath tons of make-up. He was the Beast on TV’s Beauty and the Beast, he played the strongman One in City of Lost Children, was a heavy in the second Blade film, and blasted extra-terrestrials and cracked wise in Alien Resurrection. He plays Hellboy as a jock who’s all bluster and angry loner on top, but an inarticulate cat-loving softy underneath. He says “crap” a lot and has a dry wit whose intermittent success may demonstrate that Hellboy’s tough guy act is only skin deep.

As superpowers go, he’s comparable to The Tick in that he’s really big, really strong, and occasionally not all that bright. The image of the demon with the broken horns is an effective one; we can still choose the path of righteousness, regardless of our flawed natures. The other important life lessons we learn from Hellboy are that Satan lives in outer space and Nazis are filled with sand.

Aside from the comic books by Mike Mignola upon which it is based, the movie’s chief architect is director and screenwriter Guillermo Del Toro, who with Hellboy and Blade II seems to specialize in movies that are enormously preposterous and enormously entertaining. He has given the movie a glossy, blue-tinted look, but instead of the Hellboy world being all technological and up-to-date, many of the major set pieces have the quaint look of clockwork—a Big Ben world of massive, reluctant gears and rusty chains. Del Toro has been blessed with a comic book that not many people read; the subject matter may be comparable to The X-Men but there aren’t a jillion whiny fans telling him what to do, so he has greater freedom in making a compact, self-contained story.

For all the splattery goo, Hellboy sheds very little human blood, bringing in a PG13 instead of the R rating of Blade II. But Del Toro hasn’t cooled his cackling delight for the macabre. It’s no surprise that we can’t tear our eyes off the guy with no eyelids, but what might catch you off-guard is how comical he looks when he’s sleeping or when he begins to glance around suspiciously. And the rotting corpse that Hellboy resurrects so he can get directions is at first pretty nasty, but a few minutes later we find ourselves snickering at the way he’s looking around over Hellboy’s shoulder.

Before seeing Hellboy, I was all set to use it as an example of what’s wrong with the movies today. There is a whole universe of stories that can be told, with untapped subjects and untouched approaches. But most movies have shrunk their scope to the very narrow confines of the effects-driven adventure for 14-year-olds. If all you know about movies is what you learn at the neighborhood Cinemark, wouldn’t you be stunned to discover that movies can actually be made about quiet things or ideas that challenge us?

Sure, Hellboy is guilty as charged, but it’s filled with such giddiness, exuberance, wit, and comic book “wow!” that I think I’ll wait for the next duh-duh ka-boom movie to pontificate. Maybe the next X-Men flick . . .

- The Friday & Saturday Night Critic

Sure, it’s overhyped, but Hellboy is still worth seeing for its comic book visual style. However, it could have benefited with a longer running time to flesh out plot points and characterization as the movie careens from one action set piece to the next. Maybe the longer director’s cut to be released on DVD later this year will rectify this particular failing. James O'Ehley



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