Rated: PG-13 :: Released: 02 April 2004
Director: Guillermo del Toro :: Starring: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair and Rupert Evans
By Joe Tower
12 April 2004 — I'm not surprised by the buzz over Hellboy, the new comic adaptation by now-veteran comic movie director, Guillermo del Toro. After all, it's got Nazis, it's got Satanism, it's got wild aerial fistfights with agile hellhounds, it's got Selma Blair... en fuego, and Ron Perlman as a giant rogue demon with a massive, stone fist and a very big pistol. It has subject matter that should make any comic fan want to take a dump in a public place. Plus, the comic itself, by the ostensibly one-hit-wonder Mignola, is outstanding; the story arc, the art, and the writing have made Hellboy trades a solid buy for any collection. You'd think, with sure-hitter components like these, there's no way comic book movie producers could lose.
For the most part, they didn't. Hellboy is making money. After its second weekend, it had accumulated a gross of just over 40 million dollars, which is apparently considered respectable for a movie in this genre (despite its 66 million dollar price tag), and the movie isn't that bad qualitatively. With the preconceptions and the stigma that comic movies have now, comic fans should start accepting the fact that no comic movie (outside of the Spider-Man anomaly) is going to fulfill expectations; I mean, with the incredible negative Internet hype that accompanies the approaching release of any movie, a movie production house could probably film two hours-worth of a retarded man trying to put on his shoes and most comic-movie skeptics wouldn't be surprised. So, considering that, I would say that in the case of Hellboy my expectations were generally met, satisfied, and even, at some rare points, exceeded.
The movie starts fast with period World War II pretense, following the invasion of a Scottish coastal island by American soldiers, the highlight of which is not rain-soaked Nazi underlings scurrying around a la Indiana Jones, or Rasputin opening a nuclear portal into Hell, or the hard-nosed, no-nonsense U.S. army sergeant giving a young, pliant Dr. Broom the third degree. It is none of those. But it is a brief standoff between a half-dozen American soldiers and Kroenen, a top Nazi assassin, living with the help of a self-contained life-support system, whose weapons of choice... are blades. Faceless, emotion-less, and apparently interior-organ-less, Kroenen is, in my opinion, simply the best, most unique character in this movie. His underuse is one of its flaws, and following the display of Kroenen's creepy appearance and Kung-Fu skills, the ensuing discovery of the infant Hellboy seems cheap and lame.
Fast forward sixty years, to modern-day New York, and the slow-aging Hellboy is a twentysomething, cigar-chewing pout with a horn complex. The movement lingers for a moment, introducing mer-man, Abe Sapian (fantastic stuff!), the gruff, aged Dr. Broom, the essential Liz Sherman, and wimpy, federal newcomer, John Meyer. But, the movie does ultimately get to the action; a rather lengthy action sequence involving Hellboy running down a mop-topped, bone-crunching beast. Perlman as Hellboy delivers some nearly unforgettable take-away one-liners that were a nice recess from the story's bold content and the action is high octane. The best moment in this sequence happens when Hellboy saves the life of Meyer, who stumbles into oncoming traffic, by punching the hood of an oncoming Jeep Grand Cherokee with his stone fist and sends it tumbling into the air. He punctuates the moment by shouting, "Red means stop!"
The pursuit begins when the creature Hellboy does battle with in the first scene leads the team from The Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD) to the resurrected Rasputin, who, almost a century prior, died in the wake of the Nazi-black-magic-disaster-gone-horribly-wrong. Apparently, the Mad Monk is back for the key to his potentially-scary-if-it-weren't-so-silly world domination plot: Hellboy. With him is his female companion, and Nazi gutter slut, Ilsa, and the dynamic Kroenen who, in great fashion, has manicured his body through a series of compulsive self-surgeries over time, removing his eyelids, lips, hair, major organs, has filled the majority of his body with sand, and cranks a manual, wind-up heart every so often to keep him swinging his blades and killing anyone who messes with him.
With such an outright action-packed, blood-drenched, destruction-fueled beginning, I'd be hard pressed to expect the movie to keep that kind of momentum going. And keep it going, the movie does not. By the end, after Dr. Broom's assassination, after John Meyer courts Liz Sherman and makes Hellboy's leather pants get all up in a bunch, after Kroenen dies (the deadly, human sandbag dies), and after Rasputin's sinister plot to jump-start the apocalypse and bring Hell to Earth, I lost all interest. Namely when Rasputin turns into a monster resembling the giant squid from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and, at the bitter end, when Hellboy revives a very deceased Liz Sherman by whispering her name and they proceed with some awkward girl-on-demon kissy-face.
Here's how I see it: eliminate Rasputin as the villain. Apparently it hadn't occurred to Mignola or del Toro (and I don't mean to wax logic in a review of a movie about a giant demon with a soft-spot for kittens) that Rasputin was the aide to Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, who in World War II were part of the Allied Powers and in 1941, was invaded by the Nazis. Plus, he's a weak character, and I got enough resurrection this movie-year from The Passion of the Christ. I say, keep Kroenen, dress him up in his disturbing Nazi regalia, give him plenty of swords and plenty of time to slash his way to a final duel with our hero. When he and Hellboy get there, open up the gates of Hell, unleash it on earth, and let Hellboy grow some fearsome horns and some giant wings, and then we'll really see some demonic warfare.
My recommendations for round two are (if there's one planned): eliminate the love story, replace John Meyer with someone of a little more resolve, better utilize the sleek-fishy-cool Abe Sapian (the character of which has the best movie makeup I have maybe ever seen), and get rid of Hellboy's goddamn leather pants. What, is he going clubbing, or something? Get him some nice army fatigues and a couple more guns, and don't let Ron Perlman go. One of the finer points of the movie was how much resemblance in attitude, demeanor, and appearance that the movie Hellboy has to the comic.
All in all, I would say this is a topper-of-the-crop for comic movies, but don't clamor out to catch it in theatres. The small screen in your living room will do this relatively tight superhero-action-comedy-drama the same justice a movie house would.