From: Subject: Date: April 21, 2005 3:53:51 PM CDT Hankblog

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Movie Review: Hellboy

Hellboy (2004) Director - Guillermo del Toro; Starring - Ron Perlman, Rupert Evans, Selma Blair, John Hurt, Karel Roden, David Hyde Pierce, Jeffrey Tambor; Screenplay - Guillermo del Toro, from the comic books by Mike Mignola; Rated PG13 for some action violence, and some graphic images.

In my high school and early college years I was an avid comic book reader/collector. My interests were almost exclusively centered in the D.C. Comics universe (home of Batman, Superman, The Flash, etc.). In particular, I enjoyed D.C.'s forays into darker material with the Vertigo line of comics. Neil Gaiman's Sandman and the Alan Moore version of Swamp Thing plumbed the darker sides of comic fiction, and provided some truly inspired writing combined with amazing visuals. They may have been disturbing at times, but they truly tried to raise the stakes for comic books to a new level.

I fell out of comic collecting long before Hellboy came onto the scene. I had heard about the character from friends who still collected, glanced through the odd issue lying around. It sounded like something that would appeal to me. Quirky, dark, and unconventional. When I heard there would be a Hellboy movie, I hoped that the movie would try and play on that same level. I'm happy to say that while there are some bumps along the way, the movie delivers a lot of that and more.

So what (or who) is Hellboy?
In 1944, Hitler tried to turn the tide of WWII. Delving heavily into mysticism and the occult, he attempts to change the momentum of the war back to his favor by enlisting the help of the mad Russian monk Grigori Rasputin (Karel Roden). Rasputin attempts to perform a ceremony that will unleash demigods of chaos upon the earth, destroying it completely. Before the ceremony can be completed, US Forces accompanied by Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt) of the newly formed Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense intervene. Rasputin is believed dead, the Nazis are defeated, all would appear to be right with the world. Until they find something not of this world. A bright red, baby demon. What role he had if any in Rasputin's ceremony is unclear, but Bruttenholm thinks that the demon could help the Bureau in some capacity, if provided the right guidance. They called the demon Hellboy.

Flash forward to the present day, and a series of events leads the now aged Bruttenholm to believe that Rasputin may still be alive. The only hope for humanity lies in the hands of the Bureau. And the Bureau must rely on Hellboy, and his other misfits the Bureau has taken in: Abe Sapien (voiced by David Hyde Pierce), a fish like creature with empathic powers; and Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), a troubled pyrokinetic, and the woman Hellboy loves.

Sounds...well...weird. How does it all come together?

Really well for the most part. It all starts with a script that really lets some of the actors get into the characters completely, and feel comfortable walking around in their skin.

Obviously with that comment, the movie really starts and ends with Ron Perlman as Hellboy. Though 60 years old in the present day sequences, in "mental age", he's an adolescent/teenager. And Perlman plays him with all the joy of a teenager who knows the things that he can do that exceed the abilities of those around him. And he enjoys doing the things he does. The Bureau investigates paranormal disturbances, and Hellboy is the muscle that investigates.

But as a "teen", he's also struggling with finding his place in the world. He knows he loves Liz Sherman very much, but feels that he can't ever really tell her how he feels, because they are so very different. She is human, and despite her pyrokinetic abilities, can pass largely for normal in the outside world. He can not, and because of this, he feels like the ultimate outsider. He also has to grapple with the perceived threat of Agent John Myers (Rupert Evans). Agent Myers has been brought into the Bureau to be Hellboy's new handler. And while there are things that Hellboy might be able to learn from Myers, the potential for a connection with Liz leaves him very conflicted. I know that in rereading this, it sounds kind of hokey, but on screen it's played with a great deal more skill and grace than the goofy love story between Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst in Spider-Man.

Also, Hellboy wouldn't be nearly as neat an on screen presence were it not for the brilliant makeup work done by Academy Award winner Rick Baker. Baker has been a film god to me ever since I saw the awe-inspiring work he did on An American Werewolf in London. The work he does bringing Hellboy to life with Perlman is absolutely amazing. You can take a look at Mike Mignola's old website (under redesign in anticipation of the movie I would think), and see what Hellboy looks like here. Compare that to the look of Perlman in full makeup here. He's stepped right out of the page and into our world.

Well you've gone on about Hellboy for quite a bit, but what about the rest of the movie?
The supporting cast is solid. Evans does a really nice job in the role of Myers, essentially playing Hellboy's straight man. In a role like that, it would be real easy to play it too over the top earnest, and become really annoying. Evans plays it just right, so we can like him, even if we're not entirely sure about him.

Hurt is really solid also as Professor Bruttenholm. He's a father figure to Hellboy, and he shows a warmth and love for Hellboy that makes you think that maybe he really is the professor's son. The chemistry that exists between the two of them is really nice.

Sounds like you're leaving something out.
I am, and that sort of brings me to the only things I am apprehensive about with the movie. The script itself is good, and my understanding talking to friends who've read the comic is that it's a fairly faithful translation of one of the larger collected Hellboy adventures. But just as there's only so much depth that can be done in the comic format, there's a similar lack of depth here that left me wanting a little more.

Liz Sherman should be one of the most interesting characters on screen. As the object of Hellboy's affections, she should be torn between wanting someone like Hellboy who can deal with her powers (which can get out of her control under the wrong circumstances), and someone who can give her the sense of normalcy that she has desired since she was young (Myers). We get some glimpses of that, and there's a really entertaining scene in which the love triangle is given real opportunity to show itself off. But then it disappears and never really gets touched on again.

I also think that there are some real wasted opportunities with the other supporting characters. Abe Sapien is really interesting as something of a middle ground between Liz and Hellboy. He's come to accept his "freak" status as something he can live with, and is trying to make the most of it. But we don't get into him as an individual nearly enough for my taste.

The same could be said for Rasputin as the villain of the piece. He looks all sorts of evil/weird/menacing, but we don't get enough of him to really feel the kind of threat he poses. He's not as wasted as, say, Michael Clark Duncan was as Kingpin in Daredevil (to use another comic book example), but Rasputin isn't a baddie that I can really savor getting beaten down by the good guys as much as he could be.

Lastly, I found the ending/big finish to the story to be very unsatisfying. The movie almost goes out with a whimper instead of a bang, and for me that's the most frustrating part of the film. For all the potential that is set up with the sequences that went before, there's the potential to really knock the ball out of the park. And I just don't feel like the ending hits the sweet spot enough to use that potential.

So ultimately is this movie and angel or a devil?
No question it's an angel, and that's because of the devil inside Hellboy. Perlman makes a lot of the flaws in the movie forgivable, because he's so damn much fun as Hellboy, that you really kind of forget all the rest of the problems, and just enjoy the fun that he's having. And the movie is paced really well, letting you enjoy the action when it happens, but relax when we get to the quieter moments and gear up for the next thing del Toro tries to throw at us. It would be worth the price of admission even if the rest of the movie around Perlman were just atrocious, he's that much fun. And the rest of the movie around him is good, with the potential for greatness, if not here, then maybe hopefully in a sequel or two. Whatever the flaws, the film is still a good ride. I can safely say that I would have no qualms about telling people to go to Hell(boy).

Qualms about typing that last line? Yes. About the movie? None. :-)