The Good: Dark, Well-Acted, Interesting premise
The Bad: Some special effects, Predictable plot
The Basics: When the tortured soul Hellboy needs to save the world, he has to become a team player to thwart monster after monster after monster.
My dad has a philosophy; invincible superheroes are boring. He grew up on X-Men and other Marvel characters and instilled in me an appreciation for heroes who are flawed, yet powerful. After all, what is the fun of a hero that is all-powerful? Of course they'll win. But when you've got a hero who has a weakness and still manages to overcome, that's something. I have to remember to introduce my dad to Angel. As it stands, I think he'd like Hellboy.
Back in World War Two, the Nazis attempted to use paranormal forces to win the war (that's the premise of the movie and not necessarily one of my beliefs!). To that end, they opened a portal which allowed through a small, devilish creature that was subdued by the Allied through the use of candy bars (I kid you not). Now, in our times, that creature has become known as the Hellboy and he is a part of the United States' secret Paranormal Defense team which is protecting us against all sorts of baddies. Hellboy has lain low for a while when someone threatens him and his team, ultimately revealing that the most dangerous element may be Hellboy himself.
Hellboy is, at the end of the day, your pretty standard superhero tale. We get the character's backstory, we meet the character, we see what he's up against - in this case an army of demon dogs that have laid eggs in the sewers - and he goes off to try to thwart them. In the process, he loses the aid of his sidekick - in this case, a cool telepathic amphibian named Abe Sapien -, is forced to go it alone, realizes he can't, enlists the aid of another, and finds that the villain he though he was fighting is just the tip of the iceberg.
The fundamental problem with Hellboy is that it starts with too many villains. Hellboy is brought into the world by Rasputin, his unaging Nazi lover and a mechanical blade-wielding assassin. They are thwarted in the first ten minutes of the movie and we move on to the dog-demon thing and that's cool. It's a fine adversary and the movie works pretty well while Hellboy, Abe, and some other government agents, attempt to kill off it and its spawn. But then the trio of evil resurfaces and we, the viewers, are left wondering when the movie will end. And so, as Hellboy moves toward destroying the trio of goons, in the process learning the meaning of his overlarge rock hand, we begin to feel some catharsis. But, just when the viewer believes that the end has come and Hellboy has thwarted the last of the evil ones, something even bigger enters the picture. I mean bigger, obscenely big. And it's just too hard to care by that point.
Hmm . . . maybe I didn't like it as much as I thought when I sat down to write this review.
The truth is, it's the last creature and the special effect of the gargantuan beast that costs the movie a lot of points. While Rasputin describes the hell that he can use Hellboy to create on Earth, we catch a glimpse of some of the creatures flying through the sky and they are awesome. It's an impressive visual. When Rasputin uses Hellboy to try to open the portal to let some of the big baddies in, that is also a sufficiently cool effect. But what comes next with Rasputin - the genesis of the final evil - is big and ridiculous and not at all impressive.
The truth is, outside the ending effects, the special effects are pretty decent. The effects around Abe Sapien and the dog creatures are wonderful, making them feel like a part of the world, as opposed to comic book aliens. So, the real drawbacks are the plot predictabilities and the pacing and the final special effects battle. It feels like a battle of special effects creations as opposed to characters or forces.
But outside that last battle, the emphasis of the movie does try to be on the characters. And it's a worthwhile venture into superhero universe. Hellboy is tortured by love for a woman, Liz Sherman, and while it seems like something we've heard before, Hellboy does it differently. Unlike something rather safe like Superman - where we never truly see a villain exploit Superman's love of Lois Lane - Rasputin uses his knowledge of Hellboy's love of Liz Sherman to manipulate him, putting him in the position of saving the woman he loves or the world. Moreover, Hellboy is not invincible. Neither is the more powerful Abe Sapien. It's a nice twist; the more intellectually powerful and all-around useful Sapien is exceptionally fragile. Similarly, Liz has the ability to burn well, pretty much the world, but is an emotional wreck. These characters are less monolithic than your comic book standards and that is refreshing to watch.
Add to the depth of character the general quality of the acting. Selma Blair makes Liz empathetic, more than either a damsel in distress or a superpowerful being. Blair has an uncertain quality to her eyes that makes her character seem legitimately unstable. Using David Hyde Pierce to voice Abe Sapien similarly makes that character resonate with intellectual authenticity.
Moreover, Jeffrey Tambor steals just about every scene he is in. Tambor plays the uptight Dr. Tom Manning, a government liaison who has some authority over the Department. Tambor is excellent at modulating between hyperbole comic relief and pragmatism, making Manning a character who is equally interesting to watch as Hellboy.
As for Hellboy, they say this was Ron Perlman's first chance to open a movie on his own and I assume those people are referring to "for an American audience," as he had quite a bit of success in other countries and movies (like The City of Lost Children) long before this. Perlman goes beyond adequate for the part, using his voice and eyes to overcome what could be seen as overbearing make-up. At no point in the movie did I find myself thinking "Ron Perlman . . ." it was always "Hellboy." I can think of no better praise for an actor.
In the end, it is pretty much a razor decision. I'd watch it again if I was bored and wanted a superhero movie. Heck, I'd watch it voluntarily before I ever watched a full episode of Smallville. If you like dark and different, Hellboy will eat up two of your hours, even if sometimes it might feel longer.
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© 2011, 2004 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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