Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Starring Ron Perlman, Rupert Evans, John Hurt, Selma Blair, Karel Roden, Jeffrey Tambor, Doug Jones, Brian Steele. (2004, PG-13, 125 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., April 2, 2004
Mike Mignola’s cult comic book finally arrives as film director Guillermo del Toro’s pet project, and while the film ably thrusts longtime fans of Mignola’s highly stylized artwork and newcomers alike into the world of that ol' debbil Hellboy, the film suffers from both scattershot character development and a serious case of H.P. Lovecraft overdose. Part of the problem may stem from del Toro’s extreme (and extremely well-documented) fondness for Dark Horse Comics’ Hellboy series, which played out differently in the two distinct screenings we caught. The first, presented as the unofficial pre-world premiere before an adoring audience of rabid Hellboy and del Toro fans during SXSW, came complete with the artist, director, and star Ron Perlman in attendance and was received with thunderous cheers. At a standard preview screening some two weeks later, however, the audience reaction was noticeably tamer – it wasn’t until halfway through the two-hour film that the audience became fully engaged and began to laugh along with the many broad gags in the script (by del Toro and Peter Briggs). That line of demarcation between fan and fresh blood says plenty about how the film may fare at the box office, but make no mistake, Hellboy is an American original (albeit one directed by a Mexican expat in the Czech Republic), flawed to be sure but with a core of genuinely affecting emotion that is simultaneously lacking in many comic book adaptations and is 100% Guillermo del Toro. Recalling the director’s previous films Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, and Blade II, Hellboy weaves some serious thematic quandaries among the epic battles. Chief among them is the title character’s lineage: Hellboy is first seen as a bright scarlet demon baby, conjured by the Nazis and Romanov family adviser Rasputin to win World War II for the Axis. As fate would have it, the Nazis drop the ball, literally this time, and the little imp ends up being raised by John Hurt’s surrogate pop professor Broom Bruttenholm as part of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense – the final line of defense against the forces of darkness and a Roosevelt initiative, no less. (And as for the Nazis – having already been bested by Indiana Jones, the Rocketeer, and countless others, you can’t help but admire their silly, jackbooted pluck.) Del Toro regular Ron Perlman plays the adult Hellboy to perfection: part blustery, stogie-chomping tough guy in a mean leather duster, and part angsty teenager, sick and tired of being confined to the BPRD lest his appearance incite a riot among the general populace. And that appearance is another of Hellboy’s charms. With his barrel chest; clipped, shogunate ponytail; shorn horns; and all-around crimsonality, this is one comic-book figure who actually retains his pulp-paper presence on screen. The supporting cast, notably Hellboy’s love interest, the pyrokinetic Liz Sherman (Blair), fare less well. The Sherman role feels oddly underwritten, and while the sparks between Liz and "Red" are a metaphor nicely literalized, their backstory is only briefly touched upon. Del Toro doesn’t skimp on the epic battles, and it’s a delight to see the Big Red One veer from lovesick puppy dog to wisecracking punisher and back again amid some of the most ravishingly atmospheric production designs this side of Tim Burton. Fans will doubtlessly eat this up despite its various flaws, but it remains to be seen if the rest of the world will descend into the pit alongside Hellboy. After all, there are only so many myriad-tentacled batrachian horrors a guy can take.