Given what doesn’t work about Hellboy, it’s unfair to cry interference on Revolution Studios.
They did, after all, approve Ron Perlman as the lead in a $60-million production based on an underground comic book. Writer-director Guillermo del Toro can only blame himself for taking an instantly captivating, original hero and leading him down an all-too-well-traveled road.
Hellboy is a cigar-chomping malcontent who listens to Tom Waits, but he’s also a demon raised to do good. With red skin, horns, a tail and a huge right hand made of stone, his birth is shown in an exposition-heavy, but thrilling, World War II prologue.
American troops battle at a Scottish fortress against Rasputin, the mad Russian with the power of self-resurrection. There’s also Kroenen, a Nazi Darth Vader who breathes through a mask and is quick with the blades hidden up his sleeves.
Cut to the present-day, where Hellboy is an agent for the U.S. government’s Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. Perlman’s already-intimidating chiseled face blends perfectly with Rick Baker’s makeup, and his wiseacre indifference is like Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine in X-Men, only with better emotional shadings.
Why, then, must Hellboy be sent through a plot with holes as big as his right hand? And why must it lead to yet another sacred tomb, complete with an altar and dead-tongue rites? It has to do with Hellboy’s destiny as a warrior to be used by Nazis for world domination. Those pesky Nazis.
For its first hour, Hellboy is flawless fun. Aside from the awesome sight of Hellboy, del Toro’s affection for H.P. Lovecraft’s monstrous visions blends effortlessly with action-film demands. Sammael, the creature Hellboy fights, resembles a Predator crossed with the hellhounds from Ghostbusters.
The problem is that it’s the same slimy slug time and again, and del Toro does little to make us forget that. (Even Hellboy’s can’t-wait-to-see-it beatdown on Kroenen is an anticlimactic yawn.) The movie tosses out myriad relationships for Hellboy, but only his tentative, touching romance with Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) connects.
Sherman, formerly an agent alongside Hellboy, has pyrokinetic powers (think Firestarter) that have driven her to a psychiatric hospital. It’s ridiculous that to really learn why, you must go to the film’s Web site, where del Toro has written better character bios than he did in his script.
There is much father-son talk with Hellboy’s surrogate father, Professor Broom (John Hurt), but we never feel that bond. Ditto for his fizzled camaraderie with agent Abe Sapien (played by Doug Jones, voiced by David Hyde Pierce), a fun, telepathic merman that sadly disappears from the film’s final act.
At least his presence would have been something to differentiate Hellboy‘s ending from, of all things, Men in Black. Tommy Lee Jones was knocking off aliens the same way seven years ago, although Hellboy has a better gun, dubbed the Samaritan.
Perlman is great in the role, and Hellboy will probably make money. So a sequel seems inevitable and, despite this film’s shortcomings, welcome. The promise is in the premise. Next time, someone just has to make good on it.