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"Hellboy" Deserves To Become a Hot Property

by on April 3, 2004

Don’t judge Hellboy by the advertising. What appears in ads to be a bland, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen -type ensemble piece actually packs a charismatic adventure tale. Little-known comic books so far have a rather modest track record at the box office, but Hellboy will be an exception if the word gets out.

Nor must you know anything about the comic book from which it is derived in order to enjoy it. On the other hand, you’ll have to pardon me if I can’t judge it in terms of adaptation. The title character is some sort of demon from another dimension who arrives in our world via a bizarre ritual undertaken during World War II by Grigori Rasputin (Karel Roden) and his Nazis buddies, who are trying to unleash evil demons on the Allies. How exactly they expect to get rampaging monsters to enlist in the Wehrmacht is unclear (don’t think college tuition is going to do the trick), but in any event the procedure is interrupted by American troops and their paranormal advisor Dr. Broom (John Hurt). Rasputin is sucked into the other dimension, and Hellboy into ours, whereupon he’s quickly adopted by the good doctor.

Jumping to the present we are introduced to the young FBI agent John Myers, who has just been assigned to the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. Here he finds that, under the tutelage of Dr. Broom, he is to serve as caretaker for Hellboy. The bureau is somewhat under fire as of late as Hellboy has been photographed by the press sneaking off in the night to meet with the apple of his eye, Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), a former bureau comrade who has moved to a mental hospital in hopes of better controlling her pyrokinetic powers. Also at the bureau is a sort of fish-man called Abe Sapien (David Hyde Pierce) who can see people’s thoughts and past events. As for Hellboy himself, he is the archetypical devil with red skin, a tail, and horns, although he files down the latter so as to be less conspicuous. He has great strength, an enormous handgun, and one giant fist made of stone. No, he’s not overcompensating for anything.

It turns out Rasputin and his Nazi cronies have returned to complete their mission to open the portal to hell so its more fearsome denizens can conquer the earth. As apparently only Hellboy has this ability, they draw him out by releasing some sort of nasty creatures called Sammaels that breed like rabbits. Soon enough Hellboy and company are on the case, recruiting Liz’s assistance along the way.

Given that Guillermo Del Toro directed, the film’s art direction is ambitious and impressive. Those who have seen Del Toro’s other works, such as Blade II, will be familiar with his taste for gruesome monsters, and he doesn’t disappoint here. The tentacle-tongued Sammaels launch a slug which burrows into the skin of victims and lays eggs. The chief Nazi henchman has an obsession with self-mutilation, and when his hideous visage is finally revealed he looks like Michael Jackson might if he got too close to a heat lamp. The set and costume design are very impressive, and the film is lavishly appointed in all respects. One assumes filming in Prague served to help keep costs manageable.

Anyone who has seen the commercials will doubtless go in expecting major action, and here too the film acquits itself well. The supernatural nature of the combatants does take one out of the action a bit, but it is fast and furious with exceptional effects work. There is a standout battle when Hellboy first encounters a Sammael that takes them through a museum, the streets, the sewers, and a subway station. This involves the monster comically running the length of a subway car as if it were a fare jumper avoiding the conductor.

Speaking of things comic, the film has a strong sense of humor and maintains a playful tone. The above-mentioned fight ridicules the cute animals-in-distress cliché with an extremely conveniently placed box of kittens. Hellboy often has a Spiderman-like wisecrack ready, even in the face of seemingly grim peril. There is something of a romantic subplot concerning Hellboy and Myers’ rivalry for Liz’s affections that produces the film’s funniest interlude. Hellboy follows Liz and Myers on their date, nervously fretting the whole time in a manner more befitting a gawky teenager than a massive demigod.

Acting is not really a primary focus with such a project, but suffice it to say that the villains are suitably loony and the heroes believably heroic. John Hurt adds a touch of class as the intrepid doctor, although this turns out to be another role that ends badly for his character (see Alien). For his part Ron Perlman makes of Hellboy a likeably gruff swashbuckler, bringing to mind a demonic Indiana Jones. This seems like a character with true franchise potential. Perhaps a buddy cop sequel with Chris Tucker? Let’s hope not.

As I said, I didn’t know what to expect with this film, but I was pleasantly entertained by what I got. If the premise sounds too reminiscent of Spawn, it is carried off in a far more engaging and impressive manner here. The film has a solid balance of action and drama, horror and comedy, and keeps moving at a brisk pace. I wonder if the comic source material is not a much darker creature, but the generally light tone probably makes the film more accessible to a wider audience.

Hellboy does feel like it could have used a slightly longer running time, especially at the end. Hellboy’s turbulent relationships with his surrogate father and Liz are both of great interest, but given fairly short shrift here. While we get a good deal of face time with our heroes, the villains remain rather vaguely drawn and are provided with little more motivation than being pure evil.

Still, anyone with a taste for comic book movies is likely to come away with a smile on their face. Hellboy delivers thrills and laughs with much style and panache. Ostensibly weighty subject matter aside, it is a popcorn movie, but a well executed one. If the film can overcome its ad campaign, Mr. Perlman’s charisma should win over audiences unimpressed by last year’s crimson avenger.

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