The latest feature film adaptation based on a comic book (in this case, the cult Dark Horse series created by Mike Mignola), "Hellboy" is a well-paced diversion as it sets up the mythos of its title demonic hero and sidekicks in hopes of doing well enough financially for further adventures and more character development. In the annals of comic book movies, this one places steadfastly beside 2000's "X-Men
" and 2003's "X2
" as a respectable sci-fi/action film, good for a few thrills and chills but not going far enough in its imagination to be a veritable standout.
The film opens in October 1944 Scotland, as the Nazi's plan to open a portal for evil supernatural beings to come to Hitler's aid is thwarted by a group of American soldiers. Before the portal closes, however, one such demon escapesa horned, red-skinned newborn, complete with a tail and stoned arm. He is adopted by Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt) and taken back to America, where he grows to become Hellboy (Ron Perlman), an agent for the FBI Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense.
Along with human watcher John Myers (Rupert Evans), an aquatic creature known as Abe (Doug Jones, voiced by David Hyde Pierce), and, later, the fire-creating Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), Hellboy's mission is to stop the supernatural evils unleashed upon the U.S. When the maniacal Rasputin is resurrected, intent on releasing upon the world a swarm of tentacled creatures who reproduce each time they are killed, Hellboy is faced with his most dangerous and difficult assignment yet. His two weaknesses: the unrequited love he has for Liz and his reliance on elderly father Bruttenholm, who is nearing the end of his life.
Directed with gothic style and the wink of an eye by Guillermo Del Toro (2002's "Blade II
"), "Hellboy" will likely satisfy any fan of the genre. It features a number of high-octane, special effects-oriented battle sequences between Hellboy and the slimy villains, booby-trapped passageways and rooms that remind of "The Goonies" and "Indiana Jones," and a laid-back comedic side. While the humor threatens to get a little too jokey at times, and Hellboy's catchphrase, "Oh, crap," is decidedly cornball, it does little to distract from its more serious themes.
At heart, "Hellboy" is a love story between Hellboy and Liz Sherman, who keeps herself at arm's length because of her reluctance to use her special power. Liz longs to be a normal person, and her discomfort in mingling with Hellboy puts a road block in his plans to tell her how he feels toward her. In a long overdue lead role, Ron Perlman (2002's "Star Trek: Nemesis
") commands every moment he is onscreen, which is nearly constant. With muscles, strength, and a bad-ass attitude, Perlman is a force to be reckoned with. He goes one step further, however, in unveiling a more vulnerable side who fears he won't be able to go on without his father or Liz. The somewhat undernourished romance works solely because of Perlman's dedicationhe makes us believe he really does love Liz, and would do anything for her.
The other performances serve their purpose without getting in the way of the main attraction that is Hellboy. Selma Blair (2003's "A Guy Thing
") underplays Liz Sherman, which works half the time since her character is unsure of her place in the world, but she doesn't impress enough to make note of it. As John Myers, newcomer Rupert Evans shows promise in a part that could very well be expanded upon in further installments. Doug Jones, along with the voice work of David Hyde Pierce, makes a memorable impression as the scholarly, aquatic Abe. And Karel Roden (2001's "15 Minutes
"), as the villainous Rasputin, doesn't have enough screen time to be anything but thoroughly disposable.
Because the "Hellboy" comic is not as well-known as "X-Men
," the challenge posed to director Guillermo Del Toro was in introducing the characters and setting up the story well enough that it would be accessible to wide-ranging audiences. While there are a few fuzzy details and plot holes, Del Toro has done a solid job. Hellboy is a lovable hero because of nothing more than being a tough guy with a heart, and this sentiment is a testament to Ron Perlman's breakthrough work. Meanwhile, the visual effects range from natural and seamless (as in the tentacle baddies and underwater sequences) to glaringly bad (Liz's blue-hued fire reproduction). With all pros and cons tallied, "Hellboy" stands as a durable popcorn entertainment with definite potential to become a franchise. Although it may only be the first week of April, "Hellboy" has started off the summer movie season with welcome promise.