By Kim Hollis
April 2, 2004
Hellboy is the best comic book film since the 1989 version of Batman.
That’s right. I said it. And it should mean even more when I say that Batman is one of my 20 favorite films of all time.
Hellboy takes all the best elements of stuff like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Men in Black, Eternal Darkness and the Ron Perlman edition of Beauty and the Beast and fuses them all together in one big, happy package. From the very outset of the film where the story’s mythology is set, it’s clear that this is no run-of-the-mill superhero story.
And for me, that’s a good thing. I’m not a comic book geek. Though I occasionally will read a good run of Batman books or stuff that someone happens to recommend, I don’t have a great familiarity with most of the titles that permeate the shelves. Hellboy is definitely just such a book, so after seeing trailers and commercials, I feared being burned by another League of Extraordinary Gentlemen even though my gut told me that Guillermo del Toro had created something good.
So while comic books are becoming such popular sources for film material that they’re frankly becoming just a bit stale and trite, along comes a movie that reminds us what makes them so appealing in the first place. Yes, in part it’s the bright visuals, but when it comes down to it, the single most important element in creating a comic hero that endures is character. Batman has it. Preacher’s got it in spades. And if Ron Perlman’s immersion into the role is any indication, Hellboy is loaded with it.
The good guys and bad guys are defined at the film’s opening with an “origins” sequence. We meet young Professor Broom, a paranormal scientist who has been assigned to assist the U.S. military with a strange situation. It seems the Nazis are opening a portal that will bring something inordinately iniquitous into this world. Heading up the charge for their Fuhrer are a young woman named Ilsa, a creepy knife-using dude called Kroenen and the infamous mad monk Grigori Rasputin. The mystical experiment is broken up by the military forces, but something makes it through the portal anyway. That something is a small, ape-like creature with red skin and a giant right hand. Professor Broom takes the unique being in and raises him as a son. The military guys involved in the mission christen him as Hellboy.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and something wicked has come in the way of mankind’s well-being once again. Coming to rescue is Hellboy, who is all grown up and quite a character. He works for the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, an agency founded by his adoptive father, in the role of investigator/muscle. As Professor Broom puts it, “There are things that go bump in the night, and we are the ones who bump back.”
Along with Hellboy, whose strength is in his seeming indestructibility, the bureau’s team includes an intuitive fish man known as Abe Sapien and an emotionally scarred pyro-kinetic named Liz. The usually unflappable Hellboy is rough, rugged and hard-skinned with two exceptions – kittens and the lady with fiery talents tend to bring out our hero’s softer, more cuddly side.
New to the group is a young FBI agent named John Myers, whom Professor Broom has brought onboard as his own eventual replacement. In a way, we see the story through his wide, inexperienced eyes.
For Ron Perlman, Hellboy is the role of a lifetime. Though he has always been a memorable and talented character actor, he’s really given the opportunity to shine in this film. His innate sense of when to turn from gruffness to comedy is exceptional, and it’s particularly remarkable how well Perlman is able to shift deftly from physical comedy to serious superhero mode. It’s a tribute to an underrated performer that he has created a character with whom it is so easy to empathize.
Along with Perlman, the eye candy is spectacular. There are a number of thrilling scenes involving some pretty grotesque and menacing creatures, and the CGI work manages to bring them fully to life.
Another reason the film succeeds is that it focuses on one solid storyline, which has been a personal beef of mine with numerous comic book-based films of the past. Rather than focus on one arc, most superhero films are guilty of introducing too many tertiary characters and villains, confusing the plot and spreading things far too thin. In Hellboy, the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense centers on one mystery only, though the final results might not be precisely what the protagonists are expecting.
All in all, great action sequences, witty dialogue, and engaging performances all around make for a stellar movie-going experience. Thanks to del Toro’s skillful and affectionate treatment of the source material, Hellboy is a glorious, wild ride that is so much fun it’s a sad thing when the end credits roll.
Read what He Said.