Armed with a cult-favorite comic book, just the right actor to play the title character, and the kind of budget he couldn’t have imagined when making movies like Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone, Guillermo del Toro ought to have had a great film right at his fingertips with Hellboy. And maybe he did, but if so he never quite got a grip on it.
Yes, it overflows with del Toro’s trademark style — as well as his fascination for creations that combine organic and clockwork mechanisms. The stylishness is very potent, and those half-living/half-machine horrors are as creepy as ever. But, in the end, Hellboy is just another comic-book movie of the sort that is becoming deadeningly similar — and, in this case, overlong.
The premise is intriguing enough — Hellboy is the result of last-ditch efforts by the Nazis to win the war with the aid of black magic and the resurrected Grigori Rasputin (Karel Roden, Blade II). Even though their efforts are thwarted by the arrival of Allied forces, they leave behind a baby demon that looks a little bit like the Harvey Comics character Hot Stuff. Taken to raise by Prof. Bruttenholm (pronounced “Broom” and played as a young man by Kevin Trainor, who is later replaced by John Hurt as an old man) and dubbed Hellboy, the baby grows into a very large, red creature (Ron Perlman) with an unwieldy tail, an oversized (apparently rock-hard) hand, and a penchant for saying, “Aw, crap,” whenever anything goes awry. He’d have horns, too, but Hellboy files these down on a daily basis in an effort to fit in — hard to do when you’re solid red and seven feet tall, but it’s the thought that counts.
Unfortunately, this set-up (which was already too long for its own good) gives way to the plot, and the plot is not exactly riveting. Hellboy lives — surrounded by cats — at the Professor’s Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, a secret government agency that’s a lot like Dr. Xavier’s mutant academy in the X-Men movies except that it seems a little constrained in its catalogue of special people. Indeed, apart from Hellboy and a fish-like creature named Abe Sapien (played by Doug Jones with David Hyde Pierce’s voice dubbed onto him), the only other resident seems to be Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), a young lady with not-very-controlled pyrokinetic powers, who is at best an on-again/off-again member of the team. Just exactly what the bureau’s there for isn’t made clear. A few newspaper headlines announce some feat or other accredited to the supposedly mythical Hellboy, but near as I can determine the organization exists solely to be at the ready when Rasputin comes back to life to finish his job by getting Hellboy to usher in some Lovecraftian “Old One” creatures and bring about the destruction of the world.
In any case, it’s a pretty standard plot, and its resolution isn’t much different than you’d expect. It doesn’t leave the “Is that it?” aftertaste that cursed Daredevil, but it definitely feels like something we’ve seen before … many, many times before.
The upside lies in the characterizations and performances, most of them much more complex than you might expect. Ron Perlman’s Hellboy is both an amusing and touching creation — all the more so because he doesn’t wear his angst on his sleeve, a la Daredevil. I believed in him and in his relationship with both Prof. Bruttenholm and with Liz. In fact, he’s so believable that it’s possible to imagine Liz getting beyond the outer demon to the inner man and actually falling for him.
The same is hardly true of the bad guys, and there’s not much in the way of borderline characters — everyone is pretty much either good or bad. You won’t find the fascinating dichotomy of X-Men‘s Magneto here.
There’s no doubt that del Toro is a savvy horror director and genre fan. There are echoes of Hammer’s Dracula, Prince of Darkness in the resurrection of Rasputin, and the cigar-bonding business between Hellboy and Dr. Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor) may have its roots in the scene with the Monster and the blind hermit in Bride of Frankenstein. But del Toro has only made one film — Cronos — that wasn’t uneven, and Hellboy just adds to the lopsided quality of his filmography.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke