Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Jeffrey Tambor, Karel Roden, Rupert Evans and John Hurt
If you've ever seen del Toro's Kronos you'll know that the man is fascinated with the macabre. Many of his films seem to have escaped, fully-formed, from folk tales and legend. So it was inevitable that when he saw Mike Mignola's comic book Hellboy that he'd want to turn it into a film. Both writers cut their cloth from the same sheets, so to speak. It took del Toro seven years to bring it to the screen.
If you've not seen the comic books, they chronicle the story of how the US Army foiled a plot by Nazi black magicians led by Rasputin (yes, the Rasputin) who were trying to raise a demon to fight against the allies. Although the plot was foiled, the demon was raised, but grew up (on the Air Force base at Roswell, naturally) to be a law-abiding, cigar-chomping American superhero.
Del Toro's love of the character is obvious from the outset. The film looks like the comics, is lit like the comics and has the same locations as the comics. The characters have stepped off the page and in front of the camera. The casting is perfect. Nobody could have played Hellboy other than Ron Perlman and the use of an uncredited David Hyde Pierce as the voice of Abe Sapien (played on screen by Doug Jones) was inspired. John Hurt plays against his bizarre co-stars with dignity and gravitas, and Rupert Evans plays the plucky new recruit very well. Jeffrey Tambor is just a joy to watch, and a very fetching Selma Blair plays Liz Sherman, the firestarter who provides the apex of a rather different love triangle.
The plot of the movie isn't exactly original: a hot-shot law enforcement officer is recruited into a secret agency whose purpose is to protect the planet from unseen and distinctly unusual threats. The rest of the world knows of their existence only through urban legend and rumour. The rookie is teamed up with the grumpy old hand with a very big gun who shows him the ropes, and through adversity battling a giant monster they develop a grudging mutual respect. Got the idea? Now make Will Smith white, and turn Tommy Lee Jones into a seven-foot-tall, bright red demon with a long tail and horns that he grinds down so he can "fit in."
To be honest, it's a bit unfair to compare Hellboy to Men In Black like that. Hellboy's tone is much darker, and there are occasional outrageous flashes of humour (for example when HB has to battle a ravening hellhound while carrying a box of fluffy kittens under one arm). Hellboy's self-serving and taciturn manner arrives from the comics intact, as do the trademark exclamations of "Aw, crap!" The villains in HB are far more menacing; Karel Roden is superb as Rasputin and the Ogdru Jihad really do look like the sort of Lovecraftian monsters that would lay waste the entire planet in a few hours. The character of Karl Ruprecht Kroenen is the main liberty that del Toro has taken with the mythos, and in del Toro's hands he becomes a thing of absolute nightmare. Kronos featured some devilish clockwork automata - now the clockwork powers one of the main characters, who comes across as the mutant offspring of Darth Vader and the box from Hellraiser.
The only complaint I have about the film is that to get its teen-friendly rating del Toro has had to cut back on some of his signature work and flair. Maybe it was the editing, but it seemed to be something he's yet to learn to do subtly. Once or twice when something nasty is obviously about to happen the camera goes wandering off elsewhere, leaving us wondering, "Hey, where are we going? What happened there? What did we just miss?"
But the film has so many high spots I'm just being picky. I love the dialogue:
Hellboy (fighting a resurrected hellhound):
"Cut to the chase, will ya? How do I kill it?"
"Hmm. Doesn't say."
I love the scene with the kid on the rooftop. I love HB's relationship with Liz, the "I wish I could do something about this" moment, I love Jeffrey Tambor's quirky performance and his character's grudging acceptance of the fact that Hellboy may actually be of use. I love the wacky technology of Rasputin's "Right Hand of Doom" and the whole theme of asymmetry that runs throughout the movie. It's a great movie, and I hope Ron Perlman and his colleagues get the recognition they deserve for it. Let's see some sequels!
Chris's rating: Five Stars