Hellboy: neither heaven nor hell

April 9, 2004, midnight | By Josh Gottlieb-Miller | 20 years, 2 months ago

In the absence of greatness, mediocrity prevails.

Now, that's not an attack on Hellboy: It's a good, fun movie. But it could have been so much more.

Based on creator Mike Mignola's popular series of Hellboy comics, director and screen-writer Guillermo del Toro's adaptation is indeed true to the comics (at least in spirit, if not in an abundance of beautiful little in-jokes) . Hellboy is the story of a secret government hero who fights evil for the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD).

Brought forth by the mad Russian monk Rasputin (creepy enough Karel Roden) for the Nazis and then rescued by the Allies, Hellboy (Ron Perlman) was raised to do good by protector, mentor and father figure Professor Trevor "Broom" Bruttenholm (John Hurt, properly dignified).

The story picks up with newcomer Agent John Myers (Rupert Evans) being assigned to the select BPRD. Myers, especially because of Evans' quietly likable nature, is an effective tool in Del Toro's hands: a novice window into Hellboy's world. Evans discovers that Hellboy fights alone, has a thing for fellow freak Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) and files down his horns "to fit in." Of course, one of the first things Myers discovers: Hellboy is the man.

Perlman's wonderfully gruff and imposing Hellboy carries the movie on his ample back, perfectly working with his propensity for drinking, smoking and battling evil; but mostly just by hitting it a lot, really hard. Hellboy is entertaining not because of wickedly cool fights scenes or special effects (though they are good enough), but rather because it's hero has...a heart. The whole movie does, really.

Forget the plotting. It's decent, but far too flighty and distracted. True, adventures leading from dark museums to the New York subway system to snow-swept vistas across the world square firmly within Mignola's vision. But, ultimately the plot hinges on a few weak central tenets, upon which Del Toro cannot place his overambitious machinations. Early on, Rasputin releases the hellhound Sammael, who serves as Hellboy's main sparring partner (but is really just an annoying distraction), wreaking havoc throughout New York. Also, Liz (who has crazy fire-starting powers), who had been at a psych ward, rejoins the gang only to become a wandering subplot. Soon, Hellboy is reconciling the above problems and trying to track down Rasputin, and with all of these little sidelights to manage, Hellboy is incapable of achieving the focused epic scope it attempts.

The fighting is similarly unspectacular. Hellboy's a menace, but the hellhounds (Sammael multiplies every time it dies) he face are too stupid to be a real threat. They trade nice, outsized blows, but beyond that, there is little to their tangling you haven't seen before. The fights are fun but go on too long and don't feature any awesome special effects or suspense—the final showdown in particular lacks even a climax.

Good thing everything else about the movie is awesome, from cinematographer Guillermo Navarro's propensity for beautifully dark, iconic images right down to Hellboy's warm and hilarious cast. Perlman and Blair have decent chemistry, aided by her smartly reticent performance (she plays hard to get, to say the least). Beyond that, everybody has great timing and a great script to work off of (Del Toro at least knows how to write kind and funny). Evans is great as the new guy, even down to innocently hitting on his boss' girlfriend. Fish-man Abe Sapien (voiced by David Hyde Pierce) is awesomely cool, though not nearly as butt-kicking as he should have been.

Get them all together, and the camaraderie could be cut with a butter knife, not to mention the hilarity. Hellboy trades Rogaine tips with one of his fellow agents at one point (giant red demon that he is). Later, Hellboy is wounded by a hellhound and Abe discovers three eggs hidden therein. "And he didn't even buy me a drink," Hellboy deadpans. When a nine-year-old kid discovers Hellboy (he jumps on the kid's roof during a stakeout), Hellboy gets him to bring out some cookies.

Yeah, Hellboy's not brilliant, but it's got character. A hilarious, straightforwardly tongue in cheek, true to the comics adaptation, fans will be especially pleased to note references to pancakes and the excellent picture of Hellboy's original capture. A real casually enjoyable movie, if nothing more. Whoever said the devil was neither great nor bad, but really just a bit of fun…

Hellboy is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and scares.

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