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Hellboy (2004) Print E-mail
Friday, 02 April 2004
“Hellboy” is based on a comic book, but you may never have heard of it. The creation of writer-artist Michael Mignola, it’s definitely a success, and has a strong fan following. They should be delighted with the movie Guillermo del Toro has made; so should most audiences. There’s not a lot that’s new here—superhero defends the planet from supervillain out to destroy it—but as with all genre fiction, it’s not the content but the style that’s most important. And “Hellboy” has style to spare.

The movie has been in the works for a long while, with del Toro (“The Devil’s Backbone,” “Blade II”) set to write and direct. The project was delayed because both he and Mignola wanted one and only one actor for the leading role: Ron Perlman. They got him, and surely anyone who sees this movie will have no problem understanding their demand.

Perlman is funny, tender, scary, impressive, wise and dynamic. He’s everything the role called for, and more besides. He’s always been a good actor but his slightly odd face seems to have limited the roles he’s been offered. He was half the title characters in the cult favorite TV series “Beauty and the Beast,” but his powerful but sensitive acting there didn’t seem to lead to anything else along the same lines.

“Hellboy” is definitely along the same lines, but instead of the regal Beast, Hellboy is a down-to-earth, Average-Joe superhero. He happens to be almost seven feet tall, deep red, with polled horns on his head and a restless tail. Plus his right hand is oversized and made of something hard, maybe concrete. But he likes to hang out in his messy bachelor pad, smoking cigars, wolfing down chili and fondly looking after his dozens of cats. He relaxes by watching sports on TV and downing beer.

However, he is the almost secret weapon of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. In this version of Earth, near the end of World War II, the Nazis really got into the idea of raising occult powers to destroy their enemies. Some American servicemen sneak up on a secret Nazi enclave in Scotland (why Scotland? Why not Germany? Not the supernaturally-correct ruins, I suppose). One guy looking great in a fitted Storm Troopers outfit is Kroenen (Ladislav Beran), who’s masked, slender and equipped with two great big swords. He’s also so weird I never could quite figure out what his secret was. He’s very hard to kill, anyway, and seems to be full of sand.
But the guy running the show is none other than Rasputin the Mad Monk (Karel Roden). The real Rasputin has been the basis of all kinds of movies, from romantic historicals (“Rasputin and the Empress,” with all three Barrymores), to historical horror movies (“Rasputin the Mad Monk” with Christopher Lee), to more modern historicals (“Nicholas and Alexandra”). This is the first time I know of that he’s depicted as a mad genius of the dark arts. The Nazis have built him a clever rig (looking like it was designed by Kenneth Strickfaden) that’s supposed to punch a hole through the membrane separating our world from some nether region of eldritch horrors. (And indeed, the creature we see at the beginning opening one eye in the cold reaches of space looks very H.P. Lovecraftian.) Rasputin is tended by ice queen Ilsa (Bridget Hodson), his lover.

But though Rasputin gets the rig impressively running, the Americans, led by Prof.Trevor Bruttenholm (Kevin Trainor here, John Hurt later), manage to prevent the Third Reich from welcoming some REALLY nasty partners. Rasputin disappears, screaming, into the nether regions. The professor, called Broom, finds a red baby with horns and a tail; naming him Hellboy, he essentially adopts him.

The next sixty years are bridged by great scenes of dark red carved tunnels and terrific, moody music by Marco Beltrami. We see flying newspaper headlines, mostly tabloids, about the sightings of the mysterious, trenchcoat-clad “Hellboy,” and government denials that such a thing exists. On a Larry King-like show, Tom Manning (a perfectly-cast Jeffrey Tambor) denies that there is any such thing as the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. Of course, he is the head of the B.P.R.D.

It’s housed somewhere in New Jersey, and young agent John Myers (Rupert Evans) trepidatiously reports there for duty. He knows little about the vast complex, but those who meet him aren’t impressed. Broom (now Hurt, who’s great) introduces him to a psychic fish-man named Abe Sapien (Doug Jones, voice of David Hyde Pierce), one of the B.P.R.D.’s agents. Then he’s ushered into a vault-locked chamber full of pizza boxes, beer cans, statuary and cats.

And Hellboy. He’s real. He’s restless, too, and not really crazy about having to break in yet another new agent. But over the course of the story, Myers proves his mettle and impresses the hard-to-impress superhero semi-demon.

No sooner has Myers arrived than he’s sent out with Hellboy to tackle the problem of a mysterious monster that’s erupted in a museum, eaten a few guards, and in general is making a mess of the place. This turns out to be Sammael (Brian Steele), who’s even harder to kill than Kroenen (who’s involved). His head is a mass of jaws and tentacles, and he’s very, very strong.

We also learn that Ilsa and Kroenen have spilled a man’s blood into a giant maze, which somehow manages to bring Rasputin back from the dead, all covered in blood so there’s an actual brief resemblance between him and Hellboy.

The movie’s two main weaknesses are that it’s too (damned) long; it’s fast paced, you won’t be bored, but your butt might ache a might before the end. The other is that the story is very hard to figure out. Sammael has been revived by Rasputin and his playmates; the creature lays eggs, mostly in a frozen Russian graveyard, and when you kill one, two take its place. This somehow relates to Rasputin cornering Hellboy and reading our hero his real name (which isn’t Hellboy, just in case you were wondering). And this will open the gate to those awful, squid-like Lovecraftian space monsters. And this will destroy the Earth, which Rasputin, for unclear reasons, thinks is a great idea.

But the story isn’t what’s great about “Hellboy.” Hellboy is. He’s an original superhero creation. He has some resemblances to Marvel’s “The Thing” (Ben Grimm) and Wolverine, who are also blue collar types. You can imagine, happily, the three of them getting together to watch the Super Bowl, all puffing away on stogies. But his personality is his own; like all great monster heroes, he has a tender soul—bet you didn’t expect tenderness in a movie called “Hellboy”—and he’s in love. Or at least has a crush.

The object of his big heart’s desire is Liz Sherman (Selma Blair, very good). She used to be with the B.P.R.D. because when she’s upset, she bursts into blue flames. When she’s really, really upset, she explodes everything around her like a nuclear bomb. She’s pretty depressed about this. The presskit tells us she accidentally killed her own family, but the movie just shows her annihilating some little kids who were picking on her. Served them right. She’s now holed up in a New York booby hatch; every now and then, Hellboy escapes from New Jersey to bring her a beer or two. But he can’t bring himself to tell her he loves her. Aww. But you know, it works.

The whole movie works a heck of a lot more than it doesn’t. First, it looks terrific, with great production design by Stephen Scott and photography by Guillermo Navarro, who’s worked with del Toro before. It was shot in Prague, and all the production design in the world, all the carefully-chosen dark, dank, city locations can’t make Prague look like Manhattan, but it looks terrific anyway. When Myers shows an interest in Liz, Hellboy petulantly spies on them from a nearby rooftop, eating milk and cookies by a very impressed nine-year-old who lives in the building. But the grace of this film is such that Hellboy does not get mad at either Lisa or Myers, nor does he wander off to disconsolately moan over his big red face and stubs of horns. (He grinds them down every morning, sparks flying.)

He’s a monster in love, but more than that, he’s a monster with a sense of irony and another one of humor. When something big and nasty is about to happen, he mutters “Aw, crap,” and gets on with the task. When he gets run over by a subway train, he’s annoyed, not furious, and his horns glow red from where the undercarriage smacked into them. Hellboy is the embodiment of getting the job done, of grace under fire, of sheer dogged perseverance—and he’s kind of amused by it all, too.

You will be, too. At one point, Broom describes the goal of the B.P.R.D.: “There ARE things that go bump in the night,” he says. “We are the ones who bump back.” He idly mentions to Myers that the occult wars finally came to an end in 1958, when Hitler died… But it’s also touching, always, largely thanks to Perlman’s sensitive delivery of lines. When, as an adult, he first refers to Broom, the way he says the single word “father” could break your heart.

The budget of the film was $30 million, rather low for this kind of thing, but Guillermo del Toro chose the right team. Even the brief Nazi scene at the beginning is imaginatively designed: we see swastikas rampant on the image of a dragon. Mignola was the visual consultant, the visual effects supervisor was Edward Irastorza, and Rick Baker had something to do with the makeup. The dark tones of the movie match the dark tones of the tale its telling, with the strongest color, always, being Hellboy’s own dark red. (When a fleeing Sammael refuses to stop, Hellboy growls, “Red means stop.”)

This, like “Spider-Man,” was made with great authority by someone who not only loves comic books, but understands their direct, emotional appeal. In “Blade II,” del Toro was handicapped by an ugly story and depressing characters. Here in “Hellboy,” he has the right kind of story to tell, and the right kind of leading character. I want to see more and more movies directed by Guillermo del Toro and starring Ron Perlman. Hats off to “Hellboy.”

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