Saturday, April 03, 2004


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 April 2004 at Loews Boston Common #2 (first-run)

Hellboy is the sort of movie that often elicits comments like "it's full of ridiculous things, but it works because it doesn't take itself seriously." This couldn't be further from the truth; Hellboy has all sort of funny things going on in the corners of the movie, and its monstrous-looking but down-to-earth title character does make with the jokes, but this is not the result of the film and the filmmakers not taking themselves seriously. It's the opposite; that sort of attention to detail points to everyone involved taking the project very seriously, and getting it exactly right. Sloppy movies like Independence Day and Armageddon don't take themselves seriously; Hellboy is better than that.

This would be a frighteningly easy movie to screw up, but director Guillermo del Toro embraces the weird world of Mike Mignola's "Hellboy"/"BPRD" (Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense) comics and makes it hold together. Most superhero movies, because of budget constraints or a desire to keep grounded for the non-geek audience, give us a world with one superhero and one supervillain; Hellboy not only gives us the title character, a demon brought into our world as a baby and raised by his discoverer as a son, but it also gives us fish-man Abe Sapien (body by Doug Jones, voice by an uncredited David Hyde Pierce), firestarter Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), Grigori "yes that" Rasputin (Karel Roden), an immortal Nazi, a hundred-year-old assassin who has replaced much of his body with mechanical parts whose "blood has dried up so that only dust flows in his veins", space-born Lovecraftian monsters, demonic frog-creatures, and more. Nice-but-normal FBI agent John Myers (Rupert Evans), likely meant to be the audience's viewpoint character, practically vanishes into the woodwork.

The story, based upon Mignola's "Seed Of Destruction" miniseries, is as straightforward as these things can be - sixty years ago, the Nazis attempted to summon a demon army, but the US Army got the drop on them, and all that got through was a baby. Now, sixty years later, that baby is a man (demons don't age quite as quickly as you and me) working for the BPRD division of the FBI, handling supernatural threats to the United States. But Rasputin's lover, whom he blessed with long life and youth, and the clockwork assassin have brought the mad monk back, and he intends to pick up where he left off. But to do that, he apparently needs to draw Hellboy out, releasing a frog demon into a New York museum and causing a setback in his friend Liz's attempt to control her powers.

Hellboy's world is well-realized. This should be no surprise; both del Toro and Mignola (who serves as an associate producer and design consultant) are perhaps best known for their visual styles. The effects are very good, maybe a little less polished than you'd get from Star Wars, but mostly believable and solid looking (though nobody has yet gotten the "digital stuntman" quite right). It's got its moments of comic-book absurdity (where are the giant pendulums that smash a catwalk coming from?), but it all fits together, too.

It fits together, mostly, because of Ron Perlman's performance in the title role. An old hand at working under a lot of prosthetic makeup, Perlman knows how to exaggerate his body language just enough to make up for having so much of his face covered up without entering ham territory. Despite being an actor in his fifties playing a sixty-year-old demon, he portrays Hellboy as emotionally in his late teens; he has a temper, clashes with his adopted father (John Hurt), and has a crush on Liz, amusingly following her and Myers when they go out for coffee. Indeed, that scene where he's watching her while talking to a nine-year-old boy he meets up on the roof is the fulcrum on which the movie rests; he looks like the devil himself but is in many ways a confused kid struggling to become a man his father can be proud of.

I hope Hellboy makes a ridiculous amount of money, enough to get everyone back to do "Wake The Devil", sell a bunch of comic book collections, get me action figures to put on my shelf, and allow more fantasies with this amount of imagination to be made. It's a hugely entertaining movie.

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