Director : Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay : Guillermo del Toro (story by Guillermo del Toro and Peter Briggs; based on the comic book created by Mike Mignola)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Ron Perlman (Hellboy), John Hurt (Prof. Trevor “Broom” Bruttenholm), Selma Blair (Liz Sherman), Rupert Evans (John Myers), Karel Roden (Grigori Rasputin), Jeffrey Tambor (Dr. Tom Manning), Ladislav Beran (Kroenen), Corey Johnson (Agent Clay), Bridget Hodson (Ilsa), Kevin Trainor (Young Broom), Doug Jones (Abraham “Abe” Sapien), Brian Steele (Sammael)
He’s certainly not an above-the-title movie star, but there’s no one else working in Hollywood who could have pulled off the eponymous role in Hellboy other than Ron Perlman. A consummate supporting actor with dozens of movies under his belt, Perlman is one of those actors you always recognize as having seen before, but you usually don’t remember his name. That should all change.
Physically, of course, Perlman is as close to a dead ringer for the comic book hero as anyone. Rick Baker’s prosthetic effects don’t so much cover as they exaggerate his large stature, square jaw, and close-set facial features. But, more importantly than how he looks is how he acts, and Perlman nails the conflicted essence of Hellboy—the cigar-chomping, world-weary, no-nonsense demeanor of a demon turned hero. He’s a blue-collar, working-stiff superhero whose catchphrase is the strikingly banal “Aw, crap.” Yet, beneath that gruff, menacingly red exterior beats the heart of a softie, and Perlman strikes a perfect balance between Hellboy’s sarcasm and his sentimentalism.
Hellboy is also a movie custom fit to the talents of director Guillermo del Toro, who became a fan of Mike Mignola’s graphic novel series while directing the stylishly similar Mimic (1997). Del Toro’s most recent film was 2002’s Blade II, which also has much in common with Hellboy, not only stylistically, but also thematically, particularly the focus on a hero who fights against a villain that is essentially an externalization of his own nature. While Wesley Snipes’ Blade is a half-human, half-vampire sworn to eradicating other vampires, Hellboy is a demon who was brought to earth in 1944 by the Russian mystic Rasputin (Karel Roden), who was working in league with the Nazis to take over the world. Instead, Hellboy wound up in the hands of the Allies and was raised as the son of Prof. Trevor “Broom” Bruttenholm (John Hurt), founder of the super secretive Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. Sixty years later, Hellboy is full grown and working as a paranormal investigator and defender of the free world against all things demonic, although he still has the heart of a teenager.
The majority of the movie takes place in the present day, where Rasputin and his Nazi lover Ilsa (Bridget Hodson), both of whom mystically defy death, return to finish what they started by unleashing a brood of freaky, oozing, tentacled demon dogs on the world. The only ones capable of stopping them are the Prof. Bruttenholm’s oddball assortment of freak defenders. In addition to Hellboy, there’s Abraham “Abe” Sapien (played by Doug Jones, voiced by David Hyde Pierce), a half-man, half-fish with the ability to read minds, and Lisa Sherman (Selma Blair), a troubled young woman who can start fires with her mind, but is not entirely in control of her abilities.
One of del Toro’s central additions to Mignola’s original cast of characters is an audience surrogate named John Myers (Rupert Evans), a rookie FBI agent assigned to be Hellboy’s partner. Myers’ introduction to the world of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense is an eye-opener, and clearly serves as del Toro’s way of introducing everything to those members of the audience who aren’t already fans of the comic.
Hellboy flows like the rapid-fire panels of a comic book, and del Toro harnesses the bizarre energy of Mignola’s creation with real panache. He’s as enthralled with the story’s angst and its clever historical revisionism as he is with the hyperkinetic action and gooshy gross-out effects. There’s never a dull moment in the movie, but, at the same time, it’s not a Michael Bay-style head banger, either. Del Toro knows precisely how to choreograph his action for maximum effect without ever letting it spiral into utter chaos. Granted, the paranormal-infused storyline is a bit muddled and some of the transitions can be somewhat confusing (at one point near the end, it seems an entire section in which Hellboy and Lisa are captured was left on the cutting room floor), but the details aren’t what matter here. As long as you keep in mind that Rasputin and his minions want to take over the world and Hellboy is the only one who can stop them, all is well.
Of course, if that was it, Hellboy would be a superior action flick, but not much more. Without devolving in overcooked Hulk seriousness, del Toro manages to infuse his comic book spectacular with genuine emotion, particularly in the tangled relationship between Hellboy and Lisa. Hellboy is clearly in love with her, and she feels for him, too, although her emotions are more confused. Physically, they don’t look like they belong in the same universe— Hellboy, nearly seven-feet tall and blazing red visually threatens the lithe, fragile Lisa. Yet, when they finally embrace and Lisa bursts into bluish flames, you realize that the fireproof Hellboy is, in effect, the only creature with whom she can share that kind of intimacy.
Hellboy’s other thematic strand is similar to the X-Men series, in that it focuses on difference and how certain forms of giftedness can result in isolation. Hellboy wants to fit in as best he can, which is why he keeps his horns sanded down to large, flat nubs, but he is doomed to spend his life forever kept secret by the FBI. Del Toro brilliantly emphasizes Hellboy’s isolation visually by keeping red out of the frame, thus making his striking crimson presence all the more conspicuous. His bulky physical presence always carries with it an inherent threat, and one the movie’s subplots involves Hellboy possibly becoming an instrument of evil (which is, of course, his true nature). But, Perlman invests him with such genuine emotions—both good and bad—that we never for a second doubt his plausibility as a character or why he makes the choices he does.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2004 Sony Pictures Entertainment