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What do you say about the character Hellboy? He's a demon from an alternate dimension. He stands a couple feet taller than anyone, smokes a cigar and fights the good fight. He has a dry wit and loves nothing more than to take on the baddies one on one. Best of all, the first time we see him as an adult, he's listening to Tom Waits' "Heartattack and Vine." Oh yeah. If you don't think all of this adds up to one incredibly cool package, you should. And "cool" is exactly what we get in HELLBOY. If you're the type of person who likes your stories eclectic, fleshed-out, hard-boiled yet full of action, there's really nothing here that does not scream the frigid little adjective. The sets? Cool. The effects? Cool. The cast? Cool. The story? Very, very cool.
It seems Hellboy and I share a birthday. On October 9th, 1944 (Okay, so 31 years before my birth, but still...), the U.S. army escorts an agent for a top secret fledgling paranormal investigations bureau. They head towards some ruins in the heart of Russia. As the army approaches, the enemy troops are already there and the swastika is already unfurled. The Nazis are attempting to open a portal to another dimension, with the hopes of summoning some apocalyptic elder gods. Weirder still, the man running the show is the notorious Rasputin (Karel Roden - BULLETPROOF MONK), thought dead for some thirty years. The U.S.-of A. saves the day, but not before one little demon baby makes its way through the portal. The government adopts him and names him, appropriately enough, Hellboy.
Years later, the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Development is still at work. You have to notice that this may be the smallest branch of the government around. But since it is pretty much a dirty little secret, the politicos probably feel they don't want a lot of spooks running around being... well, spooky. Not that they need it. The group continues to fight, but does well with just a handful of people. There's Abe Sapian (played by Doug Jones, but voiced by an unbilled David Hyde-Pierce), an amphibious man who can sense past and future events from touching relevant objects. Prof. Broom (John Hurt) is the man in charge of the operation, but he's not doing well. A handful of agents help round out the roster now joined by a young turk from the [/movie], John Myers (relative newcomer Rupert Evans).
Hellboy (Ron Perlman) is all grown up, figuratively and literally. The man towers over his peers. His skin has remained red and rigid, half from birthmarks, half from battle. He is all muscle despite having the biggest appetite seen since Rosie O'Donnell discovered Old Country Buffet. He's gruff and short-tempered, but inside he's an old softy. This is clearly evident as he pines for Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), a pyro-kinetic young woman who until recently was still with the bureau. Now, she resides in a mental hospital, aware she is not crazy, but needing time to herself so she can learn to control her powers.
The group is brought back together as Rasputin escapes from the hell he was banished to, sixty years prior. He plans to finish what he started, keeping the group busy with the horde of monsters they've unleashed on the world in the meantime.
By now, many of us are burnt out on the comic book adaptations. I'm telling everyone that this is one you should check out. I admit I have never read a single issue of the HELLBOY comic. The film is done well enough to make me think I've made a severe mistake. Guillermo del Toro gives people everything they could ever want and even throws in some stuff that we need.
First of all, let's start out with how the film looks. This is one classy flick, with none of the slap-dash MTV concessions one would expect. It still looks fantastical, but with a decided blend of the old and the new. The bureau exists in a modest fortress that from the outside looks like a waste management building. Once you venture within it's walls, its a meeting of different times and cultures. The hallways are chrome and filled with large doors and windows. It very much looks like the sort of project that the government would see as a necessary evil. They allow the project to thrive, but there is not a considerable amount of expense on frivolous displays. The interior of each character's abode speaks to their personalities. Abe prefers to live in his water tank, but always within reach of his books. He's an avid reader, consuming four texts a day, often at the same time. Hellboy lives in a complete bachelor pad, always within reach of huge plates of food and his weights. The professor's place is the most charming, filled with all the antiquities of a mysterious and forgotten age, but with enough class to be the most livable conditions around.
The color schemes are all great, with Hellboy a deep red and Abe pale green. The makeup is something else and Rick Baker may have to make room on his shelf for more awards trophies. The action moves at a steady beat. You get the idea that these are heroes simply because it seems like the most natural thing for them, given their allegiances and abilities. In one of the film's best moments, Hellboy removes a cockroach-ridden drain cover so his friend can swim to the bottom. Abe just looks at Hellboy and says, "We live a charmed life, you and I."
And that is perhaps the most surprising thing about HELLBOY, the fact that you will be watching conversations between a demon and a fish... and the absurdity of the situation never really sinks in. del Toro's script knows this is a comic book, but never once does that serve as an excuse to dumb things down. Nor does he throw the story out the window in order to tackle more "important" subjects, like Ang Lee did with THE HULK. He treats the material with respect and gives it an intelligence and warmth that we haven't seen before.
Relationships and the search for one's place in the world are at the heart of HELLBOY. The title character is cursed by his own identity. He doesn't brood about it like some whiner in an Anne Rice novel. He does something even more outrageous, trying to hide it. Hellboy files his horns down into flat stubs on his head, trying to forget who he is. He speaks is modern English, smokes his stogies and tries to appear as normal as possible. He of course knows he can't hide who he is, and it's a cause of constant frustration.
This strained relationship between Hellboy and Liz is amazing. When's the last time you've seen this much chemistry considering one of the party is under tons of heavy makeup? The script even gives the ironic touch that while Liz may be a firestarter and Hellboy may be fireproof, the two are emotionally vulnerable when in each other's company. The entire bureau is made up of fathers, sons, comrades and loverlorn loners. It's an amazing dynamic that you would not expect.
The performances are all top-notch. Perlman does an incredible job in the lead, and it's easy to see why del Toro lobbied for him so fervently. It's his biggest role to date and he makes it work. In fact, HELLBOY would make an interesting double-bill with Pearlman's gentle giant from THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN. Finally, Selma Blair has the film to showcase her talent. I have been a fan of hers for a while, but she was often forced to be the brightest spot in some dismal projects (CRUEL INTENTIONS, THE SWEETEST THING, KILL ME LATER, A GUY THING, LEGALLY BLONDE, the list goes on). I even enjoyed her in her short lived sitcom, ZOE... She can finally earn the remainder of the respect she got for her turn in Todd Solondz's STORYTELLING. It's a fantastic performance, just one of many.
I was worried when Jeffrey Tambor (THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW) came on board as a bureaucrat frustrated with keeping the so-called freaks out of the papers. But even he never once stepped over into the realm of mustache-twirling hokeyness. His concerns, while a little cowardly, are valid and it wouldn't take a giant leap to come around to his way of thinking. Remember what I said about the decent things done with the C.J. character in the new DAWN OF THE DEAD? Well, forget it. HELLBOY gets its characters right in ways Zack Snyder's film never will.
Guillermo del Toro has already been making fantastic films in his native Spain. In America, he has been trying harder. It sure looked like MIMIC was ready for legendary status. But it was hampered by a poor third act and the strange horror axiom that you can't kill Josh Brolin, no matter how much you would like to. BLADE II was a little more like it, one of the few sequels to actually expand upon the themes of the original, instead of retreading them. With HELLBOY, however, del Toro finally has his American classic. Not everyone will see it that way, but chances are this will develop the kind of following that's going to make all the hard work pay off.
I don't know if I could completely trust the opinion of someone that didn't enjoy this movie. The film hits all the right notes. It comes in swinging and doesn't overstay its welcome by a single second. HELLBOY is an amazingly good time. Things are looking up in 2004, since this is the second film I've seen so far this year (the other being ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND) that not only matches the hype, but eclipses it. Any self-respecting geek should rush out to this one. It's exciting, smart, funny and very touching. And in case you forgot, Hell has never been this cool.