Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Feature films based on comic books are nothing new. Hollywood's been making them since Kirk Alyn played Superman in the serials in 1948 and 1950. However, all the attention went to making movies with Superman or Batman. Outside of a few notable exceptions, most comic book movies that didn't feature Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne were either poorly made or simply faded into obscurity. But after the X-Men movie became an enormous success in 2000, movie companies started churning out comic book movies like crazy. Since the 21st-century comic movie boom, there's been at least a dozen movies released based on comic book heroes. One of those movies, based on Mike Mignola's obscure hero from obscure publisher Dark Horse Comics, ended up being a hit just as big as the lead character's right hand.
Our story begins on October 9, 1944. The Nazis have began dabbling in the occult as a way to achieve victory in World War II, enlisting the help of Siberian mystic Grigori Rasputin (Karel Rodin). Gathered with a group of Nazi soldiers at a graveyard on an island off the coast of Scotland, Rasputin opens a portal that would bring the mythical Seven Gods of Chaos to Earth. But you know how these things go. Their little party gets interrupted by a band of Allied soldiers, who arrive before the Seven Gods of Chaos show up. A scuffle ensues, and the Allied soldiers manage to destroy the machine used to open the portal. Rasputin is sucked into the portal during the fracas, but his bride Ilsa (Bridget Hodson) and undead cohort Kroenin (Ladislay Beran) escape. In the aftermath, the Allied soldiers discover something did come through the portal after all: a baby demon with bright red skin, horns, and an abnormally large right hand made of stone. Professor Trevor "Broom" Bruttenholm (Kevin Trainor), who works as paranormal advisor to President Roosevelt and the Allied troops, wins it over with a Baby Ruth candy bar, adopting the baby demon and naming it "Hellboy."
Flash forward sixty years into the future. The now 88-year-old Professor Broom (now played by John Hurt) serves as the head of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, a hush-hush government agency formed to deal with the demons, monsters, and various hellspawn that threaten the world. They're kinda like a cross between The X Files and Men In Black. Hellboy (Ron Perlman) is now an adult, and has become something of an urban legend similar to Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster thanks to his exploits. Said exploits often puts him at odds with Broom's superior, smarmy FBI chief Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor), who is often stuck running PR control to dismiss the existence of the BPRD and Hellboy. Anyway, Broom recruits naïve FBI agent John Myers (Rupert Evans) right out of the academy, bringing him in as a new partner for Hellboy and the half-man/half-fish psychic Abe Sapien (the body of Doug Jones and the voice of David Hyde Pierce). Agent Myers is just introduced to Hellboy when an alarm sounds and the BPRD is called into action. Turns out that Ilsa and Kroenin, neither of whom have aged a day in six decades, have resurrected Rasputin and liberated a creature called a "Sammael" from inside an ancient statue from a museum display. Turns out that every time you kill a Sammael, two are born in its place unless you destroy the monster and its eggs at the same time. And folks, that monster lays a lot of eggs.
But luckily for them, the BPRD crew discovers they eggs are sensitive to heat and light, and they know someone who can supply them with both. Agent Myers visits former BPRD agent Liz Sherman at a local sanitarium, and convinces her to leave and rejoin the Bureau. Now you may be asking me, "Matt, why is Liz in a sanitarium?" Here's your answer: Liz is a pyrokinetic that uncontrollably bursts into flame whenever she gets excited or upset, and she had herself committed to prevent herself from hurting someone the next time she turns into Drew Barrymore from Firestarter. Liz is reluctant to return to the Bureau due to her awkward on-again/off-again romantic relationship with Hellboy, but is soon convinced and decides to rejoin the BPRD. She's welcomed back with open arms, but pisses off Hellboy (who's borderline obsessed with her) when she starts dating Agent Myers. So now we've got a love triangle betwixt Hellboy, Liz, and Agent Myers to contend with too. But there's let's not forget Rasputin, who lures the BPRD to Moscow through nefarious means, hoping to employ Hellboy's "right hand of doom" to finally unleash the Seven Gods of Chaos.
I'll admit, I wasn't too familiar with Hellboy before the movie was released. I'd barely even heard of him. So lucky me, I went in with no preconceived notions on what to expect. Maybe that's a good thing, maybe that's a bad thing. But I have to agree with Roger Ebert's review: Hellboy is one of those few movies based on a comic book that actually feels like a comic book. And unlike other movies of the sort, it seems more like an action movie with outlandish characters. The movie doesn't feel burdened by the weight of being a comic, but instead comes across as if someone made Indiana Jones 4 and replaced Harrison Ford with a demon that loves kittens, pancakes, and Baby Ruth candy bars. Writer/director Guillermo Del Toro is no stranger to comic book movies, having directed Blade II prior to his work here. With Hellboy, he gives us is a fun, exciting adventure throughout its 122 minutes. Del Toro has gone on record for several years saying that Hellboy was a dream project for him, even turning down Harry Potter And The Prisoner of Azkaban and Blade: Trinity to do it. And boy, does his enthusiasm show. While I don't think his script will win any awards, Del Toro's work as director is part of what gives the movie its charm. With director of photography Guillermo Navarro, Marco Beltrami's awesome superhero score (including the brilliant use of Nick Cave's song "Red Right Hand"), and some great CGI and makeup effects, Del Toro gives us quite the entertaining spectacle. Unfortunately, the last fifteen or so minutes of the movie seemed to really lag. It's like they used up so much imagination, they didn't have enough left for the end.
Minor gripe aside, benefiting the movie more than Del Toro's direction is the casting. I'm not a reader of the comic, but I can't imagine anyone else but Ron Perlman in the role. Perlman was the perfect choice for the character, and I'm willing to bet that this is his best performance since he was on the old Beauty And The Beast TV show from the late '80s. Watch the scene where he spies on Liz and Agent Myers during a date and tell me you can't connect to that. We've probably all done something like that once, haven't we? I also loved Selma Blair as Liz, the love of Hellboy's life. She's just so sympathetic, and so heartwarming at the same time. I found her to be very much like Violet from The Incredibles, in that I just wanted to reach into the screen and give her a hug if I knew she wouldn't set me on fire. Rupert Evans, John Hurt, and Jeffrey Tambor were all fun to watch, and Doug Jones and the uncredited David Hyde Pierce teamed up to do a fine job as Abe the merman. What I didn't like, however, were the villains. With the exception of Ladislay Boran's awesome portrayal of Kroenin, the villains were just so bland. They want to destroy the world, big whoop. If they destroy the world, doesn't that mean they die too? Or would it be like that one Duck Dodgers cartoon where they're left hanging from what's left of the planet?
All in all, loveable characters, boatloads of action, impressive special effects, and a sweet love story make Hellboy well worth the watch. The plot may be as anorexic as an Olsen twin, the villains may suck, and the ending may be a tad underwhelming, but there's enough here to justify giving Hellboy a rating of three and a half stars and one big Red Right Hand of Doom up.
Final Rating: ***½