Hellboy (2004) – Directed by Guillermo del Toro – Starring Ron Perlman, Rupert Evans, Doug Jones, Selma Blair, Karel Roden, Ladislav Beran, John Hurt, Bridget Hodson, and Jeffrey Tambor.
During yesterday’s review of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, I lamented the fact that as much as I loved the movie, I didn’t really enjoy watching it anymore. As important as that film was in the development of the cinematic superhero genre and as much as I celebrated the movie, we’ve seen so many origin stories at this point (not to mention the origin of Spider-Man told and re-told countless times across all sorts of media), that the movie doesn’t do a whole lot for me anymore.
Such is not the case with Guillermo del Toro’s HELLBOY, which still stands as something fresh, unique, and unlike anything else. Visually, nothing comes close to the look of HELLBOY, as del Toro, Rick Baker, Mike Mignola, and the rest of the production staff use a rich, saturated palette and Lovecraftian monsters to deliver a film that still looks and feels completely amazing.
HELLBOY opens in Scotland in 1944 with the United States military stopping a Nazi plot to bring the Ogdru Jahad to Earth. The military, led by their young occult adviser Trevor Bruttenholm stop Grigori Rasputin (Karel Roden) and his top assassin Karl Ruprecht Kroenen (Ladislav Beran), but not before a red-skinned boy with a honking big right hand and a tail comes through.
This opening sequence quickly and gorgeously sets up the film’s plot and provides Hellboy’s origin without dragging us into an elongated sequence about how he was just a boy from another dimension who got sucked through space and time and blah blah blah. It’s a gorgeously shot sequence; del Toro has a really wonderful ability to create a world that is obviously constructed and yet feels completely real, too, because it’s so consistently rendered. I love the treatment of the military here, too. These soldiers have little time for Bruttenholm’s ideas, but when they’re confronted with a reality they can’t ignore – the arrival of Hellboy – they embrace the challenge. There’s something completely heartwarming about seeing all of these military guys exchange doubt and confusion for big smiles and open hearts, and it’s one of the moments that makes me love this film.
Cutting to the present, we get introduced to the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD) through new recruit John Myers (Rupert Evans). I really don’t see the need to walk us through this world – hey look, there’s a fish-looking guy in a tank who likes to read, and over here is a big red demon who likes cats – because John doesn’t really add a whole lot to the film that we couldn’t get without him. There’s a weak subplot with John romancing Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) that’s worth having around just for the great scene where Hellboy spies on them from a rooftop, taking love advice from a nine-year old kid, but after that … it doesn’t bring much. I think the film would have been better served killing John around this point in the film than keeping him around.
Rasputin has been resurrected by Kroenen and his Nazi lover Ilsa Haupstein (Bridget Hodson), and he unleashes a bunch of Lovercraft monsters on the populace. Del Toro does a fantastic job setting the action sequences in different, visually appealing places: a museum in the city, an underwater subway sequence, and an underground structure in Rasputin’s mausoleum. What combines them is that they (along with BRPD HQ) are all soaked in different colors. The museum is a rich yellow, the underwater sequence is murky green, the BRPD HQ has Bruttenholm’s (John Hurt) library on one end and Hellboy’s sloppy “apartment” on the other, and there’s plenty of ice and snow in Russia. HELLBOY is one of those films that’s just a visual joy to look at from start to finish.
Ron Perlman is fantastic as the titular character, delivering one of his very best performances. Hellboy is a big, tough dude with a soft heart, and Perlman beautifully walks that line. In battle, he wants to go in alone, while in his personal life, he desperately wants to not be alone – so long as he gets to be with Liz. He might be rough and strange looking, but he’s got that weakness for Baby Ruth candy bars that makes him come off as completely real. When he tries to tell Liz that he understands why she would want to be with Myers instead, and wishes he could do something about his face, all of the personal pain and pathos that we need to see is laid bare before us. Where Raimi’s Spider-Man kept beating us over the head with the melodrama, del Toro deploys it with much greater skill in HELLBOY.
John Hurt, Doug Jones, and Selma Blair are all good, but Jeffrey Tambor steals the show as an FBI agent forced to publicly dismiss all of the reported sightings of Hellboy and disavow any knowledge of the BPRD. Tambor’s Tom Manning is a jerk, but after Kroenen kills Broom (Bruttenholm’s nickname), Manning personally leads the expedition to hunt Kroenen and Rasputin down. And even though his attitude is of the, “let’s tie up loose ends” variety more than revenge, the guy still goes along. When he and Hellboy are forced to help each other defeat Kroenen, Manning finally sees Hellboy for who he is and not what he forces Manning to have to do. There’s no heart-to-heart moment where Manning apologizes, either. These are both men who have difficulty expressing their emotions, and so instead of a thank you, Manning acknowledgment of his own past sins against Hellboy and appreciation for saving his life come in a dismissive, “What are you doing?” as Hellboy tries and fails to light his cigar with a lighter. “You’ve got to use matches,” Manning insists, lighting one for him, “otherwise you lose the flavor.”
Hellboy tries it and nods his appreciation back, and then goes off to hunt more monsters. It’s really good stuff and a clever bit of character development that the film employs.
HELLBOY takes its time to get where it’s going, moving at a steady pace to build to the big CGI climax. Rasputin wants to use Hellboy to open the portal to bring the Ogdru Jahad to Earth and has stolen Liz’s soul to get him to comply. He starts to do it and then stops himself, stops Rasputin, and gets Liz back.
Every time I watch this movie I get sucked back in to the story and the visuals, and taken with the characters. Everyone here has flaws and they’re very real, very understandable flaws. When Abe (Doug Jones) is underwater with the Lovecraft hounds, you can see the fear on his face and in his actions. It’s just a great film to watch, full of great characters to hang out with for a few hours.
I love HELLBOY.