2004Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Cast: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Jeffrey Tambor
ne’s reaction to Hellboy can easily predicted by how you respond to the film’s opening sequence. Allow me to set the scene:
It’s a rainy night in Scotland, in the middle of World War II. A cabal of evil Nazis and mystics has chosen this remote location as Ground Zero in its attempt to open a portal and call forth the Seven Gods of Chaos from the Other Side, which will presumably allow Hitler to take over the world. The mastermind behind this scheme is none other than Rasputin, the infamous Russian mystic and former advisor to the Czar who supposedly survived numerous assassination attempts but tragically succumbed to the heartbreak of male pattern baldness. His partner in crime is a silent Nazi assassin who wears a gas mask for all occasions and has knives shoot out of his wrists when he’s ready for combat (we find out later that he is a masochistic, self-mutilating surgical addict whose blood is so dry it has literally turned to dust). We know all this because narrating the story is young Prof. Bruttenholm, “President Roosevelt’s psychic advisor” who is leading a group of U.S. soldiers to destroy Rasputin’s portal and save mankind (incidentally, if FDR had a psychic advisor who helped him win the war, perhaps it’s time to give Nancy Reagan’s astrologer her just due as the person responsible for the breakup of the Soviet Union).
At any rate, the soldiers and Bruttenholm attack the bad guys in the middle of their portal-opening ceremony. It’s worth pointing out here that the method for awakening the Gods of Chaos seems to involve literally shining a huger interdimensional lamp in their eyes. After much shooting of guns, throwing of knives, and cool blowing up of mystical devices, the Allies succeed in closing the portal, but not before a cute little red demon gets through to our side of the universe. Prof. Bruttenholm’s previously nascent paternal instincts pick an odd time to emerge, as he insists on letting the demon live and ultimately raising it to “man”hood (he pacifies it by offering the hell-sent spawn a Baby Ruth bar, a method of fighting Satanic beasts that I’m pretty sure was in the Bible). The demon grows up to become Hellboy, and under the professor’s tutelage spends his time working for the FBI and defending mankind from assorted supernatural evils.
The preceding description might sound like your cup of tea, or it might not. But as over-the-top and fanboyish as it sounds, it cannot adequately convey the giddy sense of fun that the film’s opening sequence provides once you actually see it up on screen. Director Guillermo Del Toro loads the sequence with equal dollops of chill-inducing suspense, special effects wizardry, and a sneakily subversive sense of tongue-in-cheek humor that ends up defining the tone of the rest of the film. I was hooked on Hellboy after the first five minutes, and ended up enjoying it more thoroughly than 95 percent of the films I’ll probably end up seeing this year.
The plot of this movie, not surprisingly, serves as a hook on which to hang cool action sequences, surprisingly enjoyable characters, and more snappy one-liners than a Friars Club Roast. Flashing forward from WWII to the present day, it turns out that Prof. Bruttenholm has aged to become a croaking, wild-haired John Hurt, head of a secret FBI task force that fights supernatural bad guys. Other members of this task force include Hellboy himself (Ron Perlman), now an oversized red creature with a huge stone right hand, a fondness for cigars and pancakes, and a wiseguy Brooklynite attitude; Abe Sapien, a bizarre fishlike creature who can read minds and is voiced by David Hyde Pierce, of all people; and FBI agent Myers, a squarer-than-square twentysomething who frankly seems supremely unqualified to face the horrors of interdimensional evil. Rasputin and the Nazi assassin survived their earlier encounter with Bruttenholm, and remain determined to awaken the Gods of Chaos and release the Forces of Badness upon an unsuspecting world. It is of course up to our heroes to stop them.
Complicating matters is Hellboy and Myers’ dual romantic fixation upon Liz Sherman, a pyrokinetic former task force member who is played by Selma Blair as an attractive but nevertheless whiny and downbeat individual who reminded me way, way too much of an old girlfriend, so much so that I experienced profoundly unsettling flashbacks for about five straight minutes. Hellboy and Myers nearly come to civil war over this chick, a conflict that could have been resolved if I had been available to tell them about Ms. Sherman’s inevitable descent into Prozac and massive self-pity. But I digress.
Hellboy spends most of his screen time cracking jokes and smashing things, both of which are enormously entertaining. His repeated battles with a squid-like, self-multiplying monster of Hell, one of which takes place on a subway platform in front of hundreds of nonplussed New Yorkers, rank as perhaps the high points of the film. Or you may prefer the scene in which Hellboy uses his demon powers to raise a dead Russian guy from the grave, slings his rotted corpse over his back, and literally asks him for directions. Such occurrences are representative of the movie’s tone, which despite its often spectacular action sequences and focus on the supernatural refuses to take itself too seriously (a wise decision). The result is a film that provides a jolt of pure, unrelenting entertainment for nearly two straight hours. Hellboy, as you might have already surmised, does not offer much in the way of narrative sophistication or existential angst. But damn, is this movie fun.
By: Jay Millikan
Published on: 2004-04-07