REVIEW: Hellboy [2004]

“She took his picture”

You gotta love Guillermo del Toro. The man knows how to play the system, staggering his Spanish language tales of wonderment with the oft-Hollywood big-budget action flick. The beauty of it is, however, that del Toro never compromises his vision when tackling a comic book adaptation. Looking at a film like Blade II shows that he carries his style with him wherever he goes, improving on a pretty solid first installment and showing that he can handle the work. That film helped land him the duties of helming Hellboy—I’m sure—a film with flair, humor, action, and style. Anyone else could have phoned a film like this in for the paycheck, biding time until his next passion project came down the pipeline, but with del Toro, this adaptation was just as important in his oeuvre as any other, and it shows.

With an almost perfect mix of exposition, character development, and plot, this tale of a demon coming to Earth from a portal to Hell, only to be raised by a scientist into the ultimate fighter against evil, fires on all cylinders. Concise in its origin—not quite a flashback since it’s the first thing we see—we learn where the titular character comes from, who brings him here, and for what purpose. This is the all-encompassing larger plotline that will inevitably be carried on throughout the series, a demon fighting for good against the powers that spawned him. The ultimate cautionary tale of nature vs. nurture, Hellboy may be sarcastic, cranky, and abrasive, but he knows his role and revels in the fact that he saves lives on a daily basis. I always seem to connect more with the heroes that don’t necessarily have powers. True he does, but only those abilities common to his kind. He is a demon and thus does demon things, much like Superman who is Kryptonian, (he doesn’t have superhuman abilities, he isn’t human), and Batman, who uses inventions and skill to battle villainy. These heroes use what God gave them and nothing else; no mutations or radiations make them different, life does, and they are doing the best they can, attempting to assimilate and be seen as normal.

What really works here is the way that character relationships are developed as the plot continues on. Rather than everyone have a set bond that we must become privy to, they all kind of start apart from one another. Hellboy and his father Prof. Broom are at odds, he and his friend Liz are separated by a sanitarium, Abe Sapien is detached by his glass water tank, and newcomer John Myers has only just met them all. Connections are repaired and newly created before our eyes while the fights rage on. It is the fieldwork by this secretive government group against evil that brings them all together. Unfortunately, as a result, this also means that the plot to save Earth is a tad undercooked. Sure the action scenes are great, especially involving our Nazi timeclock, knife-welding friend, but the overall story really just shows whether Hellboy will stay good or go to the dark side. The only true peril Earth faces is in the off-chance he decides to follow his destiny as ruler of our dimension, a simple no could pretty much quash all the trouble faced here. But this was always to be the first of at least a trilogy, setting up motivations and tone, and for that you can’t fault the film one iota.

To complement it all is some fine acting from the large cast. John Hurt has made a living in his later life playing the sage mentors and he does so again here; Selma Blair stays true to her filmography as well playing the troubled youth trying to find herself while also helping her friends discover themselves; and Jeffrey Tambor adds wonderful jabs of wit and humor every time he graces the screen. Even Karel Roden as the evil Rasputin continues in the type of villainy he is recognized for. A stalwart at playing the stone-faced maniac, he is truly terrifying as he just carries on, back from the dead after 50 years, as though it’s the next day and another opportunity to make Herr Hitler proud. The true star, though, is unquestionably Ron Perlman as our red hero. He excels at the sardonic rhetoric, chomping on his cigar as he cuts down those around him with words. A truly troubled soul, Perlman has full range of his facial features under the massive amount of makeup and portrays every emotion needed to realize the role. Credit the filmmakers for utilizing costumes that never hindered any performances.

And one couldn’t end without talking of del Toro’s vision. Straight off we are graced with a vortex opening out into space and the Seven Gods of Hell awaiting their rebirth. The Sammael creatures are well-fleshed out, and the multitudes of squid-like monsters also. The art direction is superb with only a couple blemishes of illusion showing through, (Hellboy’s crunching of a Red Bull can and numerous instances of bodies being thrown about, among others). It is with the fire from Blair’s character that I was most impressed with. The blue flames encompassing her entire body and all that surrounds her was very realistic and cool to boot. Just viewing the trailers for the sequel Hellboy II: The Golden Army shows that del Toro has upped the ante on fantastical beings. I can’t wait to see what happens now that we can delve into the story from start to finish and check out whether the world can be saved from outside forces rather than the fragile psyche of our hero, although I’m sure that will play into it as well.

Hellboy 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

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