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"Dynamic in disposition, but ineffectually conveyed."
"The film revels in its distinctly bright colored superhero, but doesn't support it with a plausible story."
"Its saving grace is the performance of Ron Perlman and the wonderful characterization of Hellboy."
Hellboy  

Cast

Hellboy: Ron Perlman
Liz Sherman: Selma Blair
Prof. Bruttenholm: John Hurt
Tom Manning: Jeffrey Tambor
John Meyers: Rupert Evans
Grigori Rasputin: Karel Roden
Agent Clay: Corey Johnson
"Abe" Sapien: Doug Jones
Ilsa: Bridget Hodson
Review April 2004

"There are things that go bump in the night. We're the ones who bump back." Of course, Professor Bruttenholm is referring to the covert operations of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD), an organization set up by President Roosevelt to counteract the practices of the Nazi Occult during World War II. Within the confines of this operation is a group of secret agents led by Hellboy, a devilish character with a notion for crime fighting. Based on the Mike Mignola comic series by Dark Horse Comics, "Hellboy" is a supernatural adventure with creative spirit. Brought to screen by writer/director Guillermo del Toro ("Blade II" and "The Devil's Backbone"), a longtime fan of the comic, the final product is dynamic in disposition, but ineffectually conveyed.

Obsessed with the occult, Hitler supposedly created a secret society founded on Alchemy, technology, and witchcraft during World War II. The society consisted of the legendary, invincible strannik (or holy man) Grigori Rasputin and his favorite disciples: his devout companion Ilsa and the walking cadaver Kroenen. Together, along with a contingency of Nazi soldiers, an apocalypse was to be unleashed onto the world with the opening of Ragnarok, the portal between Hell and earth. But their plans were changed dramatically. On October 8, 1944, a small group of GIs, along with the Bureau's Professor Trevor Bruttenholm (Broom), intercepted the group and sabotaged their plans. However, during the battle, "The Gate of the Dragon" remained open for a brief period of time, allowing one small, red creature to cross over.

Upon discovery, the Professor took an immediate interest and named him appropriately: Hellboy. In returning to the States, Broom adopted Hellboy and kept him under lock and key at the BPRD, along with another misfit - a telepathic aquarian named Abe Sapien (born on the day Lincoln was assassinated). Under the watchful eye of the Professor, the two evolved into paranormal crime fighting legends. And over time, the Bureau came into contact with a third mutant, Liz Sherman, whose pyro-kinetic abilities remained undeveloped and untested, but whose heart always belonged to Hellboy.

Enter John Meyers, a rookie FBI agent assigned to take over for an ailing Professor Broom. Hand picked by Broom for having purity of heart, Meyers joins the team with the expectation that he will guide Hellboy into manhood and take over as guardian. Says Broom: "He was born a demon?we must do our best to make him a man." But as Meyers begins to acquaint himself with the team, a disturbance in the paranormal world forces them to take immediate action - Grigori Rasputin has been resurrected and seeks to finish the plan he started some forty years ago.

In March 1994, a little red devil with an oversized arm pounded his way into the comic book world as an unlikely hero against the forces of evil. A manifestation of Dark Horse Comics, Hellboy was the creation of writer and illustrator Mike Magnola. It began with a four part miniseries entitled "Seed of Destruction" for which the film's storyline is taken, along with bits and pieces of "Right Hand of Doom" and "Box Full of Evil." And fans of the original comic may very well be pleased by this effort, picking up on small details like Magnola Plaza, character references to Roger the Homunculus, and influences from "The Iron Shoes" and "The Corpse and Pancakes." But to ignorant viewers, it comes out as a confusing misadventure with quirky characters at best.

Much like Ang Lee's recreation of "The Hulk," the film revels in its distinctly bright colored superhero, but doesn't support it with a plausible story. Sure, most comic adventures require the reader to make a leap of faith when it comes to superpowers and saving the day, but even within a fantasy world, there are logical constraints to define it. For instance, in the film, Abe finds a villainous nest underneath a subway and then watches newly hatched creatures escape untouched into the city; Rasputin is reincarnated by an 'ageless' Ilsa and Kroenen some 40 years later; and Meyers, Liz, and Hellboy go instantly from a victorious battle to a cave where they are imprisoned in shackles and chains. I'm sure there are explanations somewhere, but nothing appears on screen. Furthermore, there appeared to be continuity problems galore: a glass of milk is full then empty then full again; clothing accessories and character positions in scenes are switched back and forth, and I could swear that I saw Hellboy's big arm on the left in one scene and the right in another!

That said, the film actually does a lot of things very well. It has a devilishly cool soundtrack by Marco Beltrami, it incorporates witty dialogue and playful one-liners, and it stars Ronald Perlman, the perfect choice for the energetic and personable superhero. Perlman embraces the hero without the dark brooding quality that you might expect from a hellish character. He has fun, exerts enthusiasm and charm, and it shows. As the resident tough guy, it's also nice to see that he has a balance, a softer side. He likes cuddly kittens, saws off his horns to blend in, and gets jealous when the new recruit makes a move on his girl. That girl is played aptly by Selma Blair, who gives life to Liz Sherman, an explosive fire starter learning to control her powers. But her character was not as strong as it should have been, exuding too much distance and too much mystery. Because of her nonchalance, it was hard to see her as the object of Hellboy's desire.

These days, Hollywood seems obsessed with comic book adaptations. A quick look at the number of works in the pipeline is enough to make you cringe: "Astro Boy," "Black Panther," "Catwoman," "Elektra," "Fantastic Four," "Ghost Rider," "Iron Fist," "Iron Man," "Punisher," "Shazam," "Teen Titans," "Wolverine," "Wonder Woman," just to name a few. And how about all of those previous productions that are spawning sequels? As hungry as the movie industry is to turn comics into gold, they seem to be missing something essential in the process - quality storytelling. Anyone can grab an obscure title and make a quick buck, but how many can take an unknown hero and transform them into a Superman? To do so requires a degree of humanism and truth. And unfortunately for films such as these, their unique characters, their quirky origins, and their high-class look and feel get watered down with nonsensical, action laden story arcs.

To no surprise, I found "Hellboy" to be a run-of-the-mill comic book movie. A work of joy for director Guillermo del Toro, the film takes the time to do many of the little things right, but fails to deliver when it comes to continuity and connecting storytelling details. Its saving grace is the performance of Ron Perlman and the wonderful characterization of Hellboy. For if you take away his super strength, his immortality, and his demonic prowess, what you have left is an underachiever vying for attention, respect, and love. It's the story I wanted to see more of; the story of a Hellboy growing up to be a man.



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