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Hellboy   C

Columbia Pictures / Revolution Studios

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writers: Guillermo del Toro, Peter Briggs (based on the comic books by Mike Mignola)
Cast: Rob Perlman, Selma Blair, John Hurt, Jeffrey Tambor, Rupert Evans, Karel Roden, Corey Johnson, Doug Jones, Bridget Hodson.

Review by Rob Vaux

The disappointment of Hellboy may not be felt by the title character's most ardent fans. After all, director Guillermo del Toro is one of them, a passionate lover of the underground comic who spent six years trying to bring it to the screen. His devotion is apparent, but unfortunately, his technique labors to keep up. The result is a movie so deeply devoted to its source material that it forgets to let the rest of us in on the swoon. Or keep the plot coherent. Or deliver on our expectations for a juiced-up four-color romp.

The letdown is further compounded by star Ron Perlman occupying the lead. He has a wonderful habit of stealing the show in supporting roles, and the prospect of putting him in the spotlight is almost too much to resist. Excessive prosthetics -- like the kind he wears here -- bother him not at all; he makes better use of them than any actor since Lon Chaney's day. But this time around, he seems curiously lethargic, caked in red makeup and forced to deliver lines like, "You killed my father; your ass is mine." He rises above it at points, delivering scenes that resonate with poignancy and charm, but the surrounding baggage stifles him far too often to let his talents shine.

To be fair, the baggage itself is not without merit. Del Toro roots his film in the unique visuals of Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, whose signature blocky style is marvelously rendered on-screen. Hellboy himself is a demon, summoned by the Nazis in an attempt to destroy the world, but rescued by American troops and now serving in a weird government agency somewhere beneath New Jersey. He files his horns off to appear more human, hiding his rune-encrusted skin beneath a flapping trenchcoat and smelly cigar. Legendary monsterizer Rick Baker and costume designer Wendy Partridge perfectly encapsulate Mignola's images of the figure, along with those of his oddball compatriots. Del Toro places them in a moody world of dingy streets and occult fortresses, framing each shot with unmistakable style. Rarely has a comic book adaptation been more accurate to a single artist's vision; longtime fans will likely go ape.

But somewhere in the middle of all that, the story and humanity are forgotten: a common lamentation for event films that Hellboy perpetrates to its doom. The foundation is firm and there's plenty of subtext to justify our interest, but it constantly struggles to make adequate use of them. Hellboy acts as a sort of Lovecraftian Fox Mulder, secretly hunting down the forces of darkness that threaten to consume our world. His friends are a psychic fish-man named Abe Sapien (Doug Jones and the terrific voice of David Hyde Pierce) and a pyrokinetic love interest, Liz Sherman (Selma Blair); his foes are the reincarnated monk Rasputin (Karel Roden) and a gang of Nazi abominations left over from the '40s. It's a cute concept -- the demonic key to Armageddon gets lost along the way and ends up fighting the very forces he was supposed to join -- but Hellboy never conjures it in a satisfying manner. Instead, we get it in maddening pieces: perfunctory action scenes slapped together amid the semblance of dramatic momentum. The characters have a gimmicky kick, but they're also a little repetitive, and the mayhem is shockingly routine... which is all the more surprising considering how well del Toro normally handles pyrotechnics. There's an occasional effort to bring something new into the mix (such as a fight in which Hellboy has to bash the monster while protecting a shoebox full of kittens), but it fits together awkwardly, and attains little that other films haven't done better.

Most distressing is the sloppy manner in which it's all assembled, losing important elements without bothering to account for them. At one point, for example, Sherman firebombs a gang of extra-dimensional creatures who are overwhelming her friends. The next scene, they've all been chained up by the villains. How did they get there? We don't know; the jump from one sequence to the next is utterly jarring, and Hellboy never properly fills in the blanks. It's typical of the way the film hangs together. We're pulled along without regard to logic or plot necessity, and though we see where it's supposed to go, it never adequately explains the journey.

So, too, are many key parts of Hellboy's mythology glossed over, compounding the mad-scientist construction of the rest of the film. Hardcore fans probably won't mind -- they know everything they need to. The rest of us, however, must infer things through assumption, an exasperating prospect that quickly sours us to the tastier tidbits on display. Without conveying its uniqueness to a larger audience, it finally becomes an empty spectacle of confusion and lost opportunity. That del Toro adores his baby, I have no doubt, but it only works if he spreads the love around. For far too much of Hellboy, we're forced to take his word for it.

Review published 04.02.2004.

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