I really, really don’t like comic book adaptation films. I hated Christopher Reeves and the Superman films, the Batman films (with the exception of Batman Returns, which I liked due to Catwoman and the Penguin) made me cringe, and X-Men was barely so-so on my ratings scale. I skipped The Hulk entirely, at the recommendation of friends who used words like “ghastly” and “abomination,” and I have yet to sit through Spiderman or Blade. So you’re probably wondering why I’m the chosen reviewer for Hellboy, yes?
To be honest, I was the first staffer to see the thing on opening weekend. My husband and best male pal picked a “guy flick”; I was basically along for the ride. Sure, the trailers looked cool — that’s the whole point of trailers. Frequently the only bits of the film that are any good are used in the trailer, leaving nothing but crap to look forward to in the theater.
Not this time. Hellboy is fabulous.
Yes, yes, I said fabulous. Utterly. I loved it.
If you’re unfamiliar with the plot, Hellboy begins in the final days of World War II. The Nazis and the evil Russian monk Rasputin (alive due to supernatural means, of course) attempt to use black magic to wake the Gods of Chaos and win the war. The Allies raid the Scottish island where the ceremony is taking place, but not before a demon has already been conjured. Fortunately, it’s an adorable baby demon, and paranormal expert Trevor “Broom” Bruttenholm (John Hurt) adopts the little darling, upon whom the Allied troops affectionately bestow the unfortunate moniker “Hellboy.”
Fast forward to present day Newark, where the elderly Broom and his demonic son live in underground rooms at the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. Hellboy, code name “Red”, has grown to an imposing, near indestructible superbeing who, along with the “ichthy sapien” fishman Abe (“Blue”) helps Broom and the FBI hunt down various supernatural evils. Yes, they are in fact ghostbusters — or, to quote Broom “You’ve heard of things that go bump in the night? We are the ones who bump back.” Delightful bit of writing, that!
Enter John Myers (the young and handsome Rupert Evans), an FBI agent who is to be trained as Hellboy’s new “babysitter”. Hellboy, you see, has a tendency to want to escape his underground digs in search of excitement. Being an immortal creature, he ages rather slowly, so he’s the demonic equivalent of an adolescent in an adult body. Unfortunately, Hellboy sightings give civilians the willies and give tabloids an endless supply of fodder, none of which is good for the Bureau’s need to remain secret. Myers is meant to fulfill the role of “sidekick,” and he does it fairly well, in a likeably forgettable sort of way. He may be prettier than Hellboy, but he’s never more interesting.
Add to the action the creepy Rasputin, his nasty Nazi lover/sidekick Ilsa, a particularly icky villain called Kroenen, and Liz Sherman, Hellboy’s tormented crush who has left the Bureau for her own peace of mind, and this is a movie with places to go.
And go it does, from that Scottish island to the New York subway system, from a museum gallery beset by demons to a crypt outside of Moscow. There’s plenty of action here, as Hellboy and friends battle an army of resurrecting demons — icky things that reminded me of a cross between the critters from Alien and Predator — as well as the heavily Lovecraftian Gods of Chaos. But then, let’s face it, action is to be expected in a comic book adaptation. The things I didn’t expect were the things that made this film beautiful.
For the most part, Hellboy has a wonderful duality about it; an action film with real emotions. The writing is honestly damned good, witty and funny and wry, with poignant moments that almost never deteriorate into the realm of the schmaltzy. But much of Hellboy‘s power comes from what isn’t said out loud.
Ron Perlman’s Hellboy is troubled, but he doesn’t whine about it. His very carriage, at times, is sad. A veteran of comic adaptations and costumed roles, Perlman, heavily made up, acts with his whole being, and Hellboy has a depth that often escapes actors unburdened with latex and prosthetics. Hellboy is lonely — we know this because he surrounds himself with rescued stray cats. Hellboy is in love — we know this because he loses his roughneck composure ever so slightly when near his beloved pyrokinetic Liz Sherman. Hellboy loves his father — we know this because he’s not speaking to him. (Why do I say that? Come on, when a rebellious teenager has the power to take apart a building, not to mention take apart his father in the literal sense, and the worst he does is give him the cold shoulder? That’s love.)
Selma Blair is equally adept with her characterization of Liz Sherman. She touches on pathos but maintains her humor, and even in her most pained moments she remains courageous. It’s clear that Hellboy loves her, not for her compatible super ability, but for her personality. She is, as he is, eminently touching and lovable.
Between Doug Jones (in the costume) and David Hyde-Pierce (the voice), Abe Sapien is also a believably “human” character. Karl Roden’s Rasputin oozes nasty, but in a subdued way; he never appears cartoonish, though his sometime girlfriend and apprentice Ilsa frequently and unfortunately does. And Jeffrey Tambor’s Dr. Tom Manning, the quintessential arrogant bureaucratic bastard, rushing about at the most inopportune moments screaming “I am in charge!”…well, he turns out to be a pretty decent fellow, too.
So, I’m not a fan of comic book adaptations, but I am definitely a fan of Hellboy. Mike Mignola, creator of the Dark Horse Comic series, is listed as an associate producer. Maybe that helped. Director Guillermo del Toro also wrote the screenplay; obviously a talented man, that one. Ron Perlman: again, there are not enough superlatives to describe his portrayal of this character.
Hellboy is by turns exciting, clever, romantic, affecting, and acerbic. If there are cliches, there are more instances where cliches could have been used and weren’t. I’ll watch it again, in fact, I look forward to watching it several times. Go on now…if you haven’t seen it yet, you’re just wasting time. Sheesh.
(Revolution Studios, 2004)