Hellboy (2004)

Comic-book movies don't have to live up to their source material in order to be good; Steel, with Shaquille O'Neal, for instance, was a light-hearted, silly movie, but not egregiously bad. Spider-Man, with Tobey Maguire, was fun and faithful to its origins, even if it cribbed a bit from Batman. And Daredevil, with Ben Affleck, of course, I haven't seen yet.

Hellboy doesn't quite fall into the presumably unwatchable category of a Ben Affleck-as-Daredevil movie, but it comes close, and unless you are already a big fan of the Hellboy comics from Dark Horse, you may wish you had waited a week for the new Punisher movie. I'm looking forward to seeing John Travolta as the bad guy again, which brings up the point that Hellboy could have used a good bad guy.

Hey, I know, the hero is from hell, so let's make the bad guy from hell! Lucifer's number one in the bad-guy business, and there are any number of ancient made-up demons from Lovecraft to Disney who could fill the bill. Instead, what do we get? Rasputin (Karel Roden, a veteran of director Guillermo del Toro's Blade II). Maybe he was cool in the comic book, if this character is lifted straight from the comic book, and Rasputin could certainly be a menacing occultist returned from hell in some movie, but he works in Hellboy like, basically, a half-hearted vampire in priest's robes. Without spoilers, there are also a Nazi mannequin and a clockwork Nazi who fulfill the essentially interchangeable role of being Nazis.

Hellboy, with formulaic development, flat characters, unimaginative visual effects, and a wildly unexploited world of possibilities, is sort of like Indiana Jones meets the Men in Black meet the Ghostbusters meet the Incredible Hulk, with just enough of each to stitch together a long, uninspired movie based on the intriguing character of Hellboy. In other words, unless you can't help it, stay away. This is not the best effort of director del Toro, the wonderfully visual helmer of Mimic and Cronos.

It's not Ron Perlman's fault, as the title character. Perlman does an excellent, intelligent job of playing the personality of this weird half-man, half-demon federal agent. The loneliness, the doomed feeling, the heroic antics, all seem believable from the big man in the big red suit. Hellboy, however, should have seemed more hellish, it seems to me. Specifically, redder, hotter, maybe smoking or smoldering, certainly glowing more. He seemed made of stone, like The Thing from The Fantastic Four (coming summer 2005), and not necessarily even brimstone. He did glow as a half-demon baby in the opening sequence, but then he seemed to cool off, and visually, it doesn't pay off.

Selma Blair is good too, as the pyrokinetic Liz, but her character is woefully underdeveloped. Personally, I would have liked to see Liz and Hellboy on more separate missions before they came together, to establish each of them as a hero in their own right. Instead, Liz seems kind of tacked on, like they were worried about too much of an interdimensional romance. Some of the moments in Liz's storyline are visually stunning, but leave too much to the imagination, like the audience is trusted, as they might be in a tighter, comic-book format, to understand exactly what happened with a few silent panels. Hellboy, in places, needs more panels or development to advance the story without skipping over things.

At two hours and twelve minutes, this disjointedness gets tiresome after not long, especially with the ho-hum, repetitive effects which seem taken from lame sci-fi movies of the fifties and sixties, and a hammeringly bad score by Marco Beltrami.

Actors and characters who don't work also include John Hurt as Professor Bruttenholm, another character without much motivation or much to do, a bland Rupert Evans as Myers, Hellboy's new FBI handler, and Doug Jones in a fish suit as Abe Sapien, a sort of amphibian Sherlock Holmes who eats rotten eggs and knows everything. I think we've all got a lot to learn from Abe Sapien. I can tell because his voice is a barely-legal imitation of David Hyde Pierce, and the fish kinda looks like Niles.

I will watch Hellboy 2, but probably only if it has a really good villain. And is Hellboy's "secret" blown now? Not especially a fan of the comic book, I'm not sure. The strings tied up in the last few moments of the film seem to suggest we know all about Hellboy, from birth to the present day, but if so it seems to leave only a little room for further adventures.

4-11-04


Links for Hellboy

Internet Movie Database Entry

Roger Ebert Review

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