Viking Night: Hellboy
By Bruce Hall
March 19, 2014
I can’t believe I haven’t written about Hellboy yet. Sure, 900 words from now it won’t matter anymore, but at the exact moment I’m writing this, I can’t believe I haven’t written about Hellboy yet. I guess that makes me as guilty as the rest of you for not appreciating Guillermo del Toro enough. To think of him as the equally furry love child of Tim Burton and Peter Jackson is a given (good luck sleeping tonight). But it doesn’t really do the man justice. If you look closely, his interpretation of the cult favorite graphic novel is more than just a vaguely derivative, by-the-book popcorn flick. It’s also infused with del Toro’s quaintly elegant, visually powerful view of the world around us.
As a result, Hellboy is an endlessly watchable classic – predictable, yes, but in the same way a good hamburger is. But it’s also good enough and unique enough for me to consider it the first (and obviously last) worthy sequel to Ghostbusters. It’s kind of cool if you like good movies, and kind of sad if you’re Dan Aykroyd.
Anyway, if you want to know what Hellboy is, consider it a fairly standard issue Hero Story not unlike the ones you read in eighth grade. It takes place in a fantastic world that resembles ours but is obviously way cooler. There’s a threat to humanity, and ready to face it is the kind of reluctant, misanthropic prick-with-a-heart-of-gold that modern audiences really love to get behind. There’s a girl who’s in love with the hero and another who’d just as soon cook him for breakfast. There’s a father figure, a brother figure and sometimes the first girl gets to do time as a mother figure. There’s a villain, of course, and of course he’s as pitilessly evil as the hero is relentlessly conflicted. There’s a wide and varied supporting cast of good and evil, and the plot is just crazy enough to have maybe almost happened.
It’s the kind of story people have been getting thrilled about for as long as there have been people. And in this case, a finely tuned Swiss watch of a screenplay (by del Toro himself) wastes not one word or moment as it hits every plot point right where you expect it to – and with the wry, just short of overbearing sense of humor more movies could stand to have. I’m not saying Hellboy is a masterpiece, but it is a damn good movie that’s damn good fun to watch. But I guess all I’ve done so far is give you a lot of blanks. Let me fill some of them in for you.
I don’t want to get too much into the details other than to say the plot is a wide mashup of influences reminiscent of everything from Indiana Jones, H. P. Lovecraft, Greek mythology, the aforementioned Ghostbusters and I don’t know, maybe even The Man from UNCLE. Still, as varied and obvious as these things may be, they never seem truly derivative – and that was the wrong word to use. Let’s call it “inspired”. Hellboy’s workmanlike method of storytelling only enhances what really is a grand, romantic sense of style. Hellboy himself (Ron Perlman) is a demonic creature born of evil but dedicated to ridding the world of it, as part of a crack team of paranormal eliminators, led by the eccentric Dr. Trevor Bruttenholm (John Hurt).
The rest of the team consists of Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), a psychic fish - man that's obviously what would happen if Niles Crane knocked up the Little Mermaid. And then there's Hellboy's on again, off again girlfriend Liz (Selma Blair), who's really aloof but oddly sensitive, and sometimes sets herself on fire. I'm pretty sure I dated her a couple of times back in 1997.
Their nemesis is none other than Grigori Rasputin, famed occultist best known for being incredibly hard to kill and having a huge dong. This version of the guy also has supernatural powers and is working with the Nazis to summon the end of the world. Funny thing is, it was Bruttenholm's interference that gave Rasputin his power and created Hellboy, who is the only one who can re-open the portal to Hell, which is why Bruttenholm's team exists - because Rasputin's goons keep summoning demons to draw them out. It's a dysfunctional supernatural family spat full of weirdness, irony and evil squid creatures from Satan's backyard. It’s hard to call it “confusing,” though, because the details really don’t matter. The real story is how the father-son, boyfriend-girlfriend, reluctant savior of mankind thing works out in general.
Which means the real draw is Perlman, whose snarky, cigar chomping antihero is the perfect counterpoint to the film's epic tone. Perlman makes playing Hellboy look like a joy, and if there’s anyone on earth who should be comfortable under 40 pounds of makeup, he’s your guy. The other might be Jones, whose nuanced portrayal of Sapien is almost good enough to warrant its own film. Special honorable mention goes to the character of Kronen (Ladislav Beran), who’s kind of a cross between Jackie Chan, Frankenstein and Snake Eyes from GI Joe. Hellboy is worth watching just for the hilariously macabre supporting cast. Unless you’re the kind of person who slept in the day they handed out imaginations, Hellboy is just a good old fashioned carnival ride from start to finish, but it’s also just a little bit classy, too.
I really don’t know WHY I haven’t written about Hellboy before, but 900 words later, the problem has been solved. As he always does, Guillermo del Toro has created a uniquely engaging, fun, sometimes even haunting universe filled with cool characters that you won’t mind coming back to visit from time to time. It’s not for the faint of imagination but if that was your problem, you wouldn’t be reading this, would you? So if you wanna bust some ghosts, this is how it’s done. It’s kind of cool if you like good movies, and kind of sad if you’re Dan Aykroyd.