Rated: PG-13 :: Released: 02 April 2004
Director: Guillermo del Toro :: Starring: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair and Rupert Evans
By Jeff Zwirek
09 April 2004 — Let me start off by saying that I've been a fan of the Hellboy comics since they first came out, so my thoughts on the movie carry an obvious taint. But, with that said, I'm going to give you my opinion on the movie in two sections. The first shall be my experience as it compared to the comics. The second will be my attempt to recall the movie without preconceived notions, and judge it on its own merits. So, on with it.
Hellboy is a great comic. One of the best in the industry as far as I'm concerned, so if you haven't read it yet, do so. One of the elements that make Hellboy so unique and special is Mike Mignola's artistic style. Yes, the Hellboy stories are also quite good, but for me they've always been a predominantly visual treat. Now, early buzz on the movie said that Mignola was working with del Toro on the movie and would even be a part of the design team, so my expectations were high; and yes, the first fifteen minutes of the movie that took place in WWII Germany—with it's crumbling architecture, and gothic statues—lived up to all I thought it could be. However beyond that, the look of the movie fell into the typical action/sci-fi generica—its sets just as fitting for the next X-Men movie. As for Hellboy himself, the people involved did a fine job of making somebody look as close to a live version of Mignola's creature as possible, even if they couldn't pull off the hoofed feet.
Beyond the superficial, the movie's script is based upon the first Hellboy story Seed of Destruction, and its straying from the source material in favor of standard Hollywood cliché's is where I most take issue with the film. Say what you will about Hollywood cliché's. Personally, I think they can still work, when done right—in those few moments when a cliché can tap into a shared human emotion, exposing not stereotypes, but archetypes. It's here where the comics excel past the film.
In the comic version of the movie events we're treated to a creepy old European castle and a thorough and revealing past of Rasputin, but the movie instead forces a love interest and Hellboy as a government conspiracy theory. Granted the latter is sexier and more acceptable in a mainstream Hollywood movie, but it's the lack of those elements that make Hellboy the comic all the more unique and refreshing. Mignola could focus on those elements that may very well be obvious areas to explore, but he prefers to instead focus on Hellboy as a type of mythology—where transparent love stories are unnecessary.
The filmmakers also claimed a great feat in "nailing Hellboy" as a character. True Ron Pearlman had the right common man approach. But for an average Joe, Hellboy to quickly shifted from tortured soul, to freakish outsider, to rebellious youth. In the comics Mignola utilizes Hellboy primarily as a tool to explore issue that he's interested in: ancient myths, folk tales, legends, and dark arts. The situations taking the forefront of most tales, deviating from time to time to connect it all to Hellboy's mysterious origin and purpose. The movie, however, focuses on character development. Which is great in theory, but when the depth of the characters is the challenge of being a freakish do-gooder, the movie treads ground that movies like Spider-Man and X-Men already have and with greater effect. Ultimately that form of identifying with the character is becoming tired and rote. It was always Hellboy's light hearted nature that kept the comic series level headed and unpretentious; the film attempts the same but far too many of those moments fall flat, and Hellboy's attempt to maintain a sense of humor in any situation ends up manifesting itself in too many cheesy quips.
Moving to Hellboy as a movie in its own right, I wish I had seen director del Toro's other films. Based upon the choices he made as screenwriter and director, it seems to me that he is primarily a guy interested in making monster movies. And from what I've heard of his other movies, that's not far from true. Again I must confess that I am not a big fan of monster movies as a genre. In the case of Hellboy, the monsters are a giant multiplying beast named Samuel and a Nazi assassin named Kroenen—not to mention the monsters that are the heroes in Hellboy and fish-man Abe Sapien.
Hellboy has an interesting origin and it's represented well in the movie, but once the movie moves past that it seems simply like an excuse to fetishize the visuals that the characters represent. Hence we get to see Hellboy vs. Samuel and Hellboy vs. Kroenen, and then we see Abe vs. Samuel and Kronen vs. the nameless good guys who exist to be killed in interesting ways. Unfortunately the interesting ways in which people are killed, or the action scenes with the big fights, aren't that interesting; which seems to be a problem in the current post-Matrix landscape. So yes, some of those action sequences are cool and well done, but they are hardly memorable. In fact I suspect the only scene that will hold much memory will be the climax, where the images from the comic are expertly adapted on to the screen but with more of an epic creepiness.
The rest of the story, which does consist mostly of the characters relationships with each other, almost tries to do too much. I applaud the effort in inject more character and story into an action film, but there were too many disjointed elements that tried to build into a full picture of Hellboy's universe. Hellboy's relationship with the professor being that of a father and son, Hellboy's unrequited love for Liz Sherman, Liz Sherman's inability to control her powers, and Hellboy being a modern day urban myth (complete with out of focus pictures). Unfortunately these elements were merely introduced, or explored only briefly, and when explored more thoroughly brought nothing new to the superhero genre. As a result these elements feel only like devices created to bulk up the thin characters.
There are parts of the movie I did enjoy, and listing all the faults I felt it had probably makes it appear to be worse than it is. There was a good balance between story and action; the special effects and make-up were almost always very well done. And as somebody coming to the movie cold, I imagine they at least got an entertaining tale with subjects they've never seen before. For me, seeing Hellboy break his horns off in all its live action glory was almost worth the price of my matinee ticket. In short, del Toro knows how to make a competent monster movie, and the source material being what it is lends interesting and unique ideas to your average action film; and from the feedback I've personally heard, I tend to be one of the few that only thought the film mediocre. So, if you're in the mood for a cool monster movie with a couple of good laughs and good performances, Hellboy fits the bill. But if you're looking for a close adaptation of the dark and gloomy source material, you may have to wait for the sequel.