Comic book films are all the rage these days. Ever since movies like X-Men, Blade and Spider-Man conquered the box office, Hollywood execs have been scrambling to mine the latest hot property from the printed page. When done correctly, these films capture the wonder and imagination of their original source material (which is saying a lot). When they fail, as in the case of movies like Electra and The Incredible Hulk, they become bland exercises in mediocrity – something which the boys in Los Angeles are all too familiar with.
But I don’t want to be too hard on Hollywood. It’s not necessarily easy to adapt a comic book. First of all, it’s hard to pull off unless you have a king-sized budget (just imagine a movie like Spider-Man done on the cheap). Then you’ve got to find a director who can transfer the visuals of a comic book to the big screen (Sam Raimi comes immediately to mind). Then there are all the usuals like competent actors and a solid script, as well as that intangible “something” which seems to be ever-present in movies which really come together. All in all, not an easy task, but one that studios are more than happy to take on for the time being. That is, at least until the superhero version of Ishtar comes along.
This entrant into the Hollywood superhero sweepstakes is called Hellboy and was directed by Guillermo del Toro (most known for his work on The Devil’s Backbone and Blade II). Based on the comic book by Mike Mignola, the plot is as follows: Towards the end of World War Two, Nazi mystics led by Rasputin (Karel Roden) attempt to open a portal at Hitler’s behest and bring forth an alien god from the depths of space. They are thwarted by a group of American soldiers and a youthful occult expert named Trevor Bruttenholm. Rasputin is hurled into the portal and everything is once again right with the world. Well, that is until they discover that something came through the portal while it was open. That something happens to be a small demon, complete with an oversized stone hand and long red tail. The soldiers adopt the childlike creature (who happens to love Baby Ruth candy bars) and give him the moniker of Hellboy (Ron Perlman).
Fast forward 60 years into the future. Bruttenholm (John Hurt) is the head of the Bureau of Paranormal Research, and a slow-aging Hellboy is their chief monster hunter. Other members include Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), a pyrokinetic with emotional problems, and Abe Sapien (acted by Doug Jones and voiced by David Hyde-Pierce), an aquatic telepath. And the newest addition is John Myers (Rupert Evans), a young agent hand-picked by the very ill Bruttenholm to be his replacement. Meanwhile, we find that Rasputin has returned from the void, and he has horrible plans….plans which only Hellboy can help or hinder.
Before I go any further, let me say that Ron Perlman is the man. He has an uncanny ability to convey emotion through layers of make-up and prosthetics, no doubt a skill he honed during his stint on the television series Beauty and the Beast. And playing larger-than-life characters is what he does best, as demonstrated by standout roles in Alien: Resurrection, City of Lost Children, and Blade II. With his oversized jaw and atypical looks, Perlman has been embraced by a generation who grew up staring at Klingons, Sith Lords, and other assorted oddities.
Perlman is in rare form in Hellboy, possessing both the physical presence and acting ability to pull off the role of a big red demon. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get a lot of help from his surroundings, especially the Del Toro script.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful movie to look at, and the special effects are really top-notch. Take, for example, a scene in which Hellboy glimpses a vision of a possible future Earth, complete with vast tentacles stretching across the sky and smoldering cities in ruin. It would no doubt be enough to reduce even H.P. Lovecraft to tears.
But there’s something missing among all the effects and attitude. For a movie which deals with mysticism and alien gods, Hellboy, ironically, seems to lack a soul. Most of the characters just seem to be going through the motions with no real direction in mind. Even the villains seem made of cardboard, and their nefarious schemes lack any real sense of urgency or dread. If an alien god was about to cross over into this world, don’t you think it should seem a little scary? Del Toro should have watched John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness to see how it’s done.
John Hurt, an excellent actor, is given very little to do as Bruttenholm. Even his illness is only briefly touched upon, robbing the movie of what could have been perhaps its most dramatic element. No, Hurt is mainly called upon to look dignified, something an actor of his caliber could pull off in their sleep.
Rupert Evans and Selma Blair also suffer from the poor script. A romance between the two is teased, but it is quickly dropped as the final act of the film draws near (another wasted opportunity). Blair spends most of the film slinking around in black and looking glum, and one wonders why our protagonist would be so smitten with her in the first place (unless, of course, it’s simply because she’s the only woman he knows). Evans (as John Myers) is a major player in the early part of the film, but seems to recede into the background and almost disappear by the end. True, Hellboy is the focus of the film, but it’s a little odd to feature someone so prominently in the early stages and then pull them away as the picture wears on. Even Jeffrey Tambor as Tom Manning seems to get more screen time down the stretch.
But the villains are what really keep Hellboy from rising above the rank of simply average. In a film like this, the antagonists are all-important. Heck, they’re all-important in every action movie. Just look at a film like Die Hard. Would John McClane have seemed half as heroic if he didn’t have a villain like Hans Gruber to match wits with?
As the central villain, Rasputin is a major letdown. He has potential to be sure, but that potential is buried beneath a mountain of generic villain-speak. In fact, the clockwork nazi named Karl Ruprecht Kroenen seems to be a far more interesting villain, although the script quickly runs out of ideas and just ends up thrusting him into a generic battle with our hero. Even the final monster, which is supposed to be the primary threat, is disposed of in short order (leaving the climax of the movie feeling very incomplete).
Hellboy is worth the price of a rental, if for no other reason than to see Perlman in action and admire the special effects. But don’t snap it up expecting the character depth of Spider-Man or the supernatural energy of Blade. Like the mystical villains which populate its landscape, Hellboy talks a good game but ultimately has nothing to say. Indoor LED Display