The Movie Review: 'Hellboy'

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For anyone who found Spider-Man 2 an overwrought retread--there must be some of you out there; I can't be the only one--the video release of Hellboy this week may offer some consolation. An eclectic and fiercely entertaining blend of X-Men, Men in Black, and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," Hellboy, like the first Spider-Man, has the  infectious zest of a movie made by enthusiasts not yet worried about their place in box-office history.

Written and directed by horror/superhero veteran Guillermo del Toro (Chronos, Blade II), Hellboy opens in 1944 at an abbey in Scotland, where Nazi mystics led by a considerably-less-dead-than-advertised Rasputin are opening a gate to another world in order to recruit diabolical allies for the Third Reich. A squad of Yanks led by a young occultist of their own shows up to stop the ceremony and close the portal, but not before the arrival of a creature resembling an ambulatory lobster special: small, red, and sporting a clawlike right hand that would challenge the sturdiest nutcrackers. (Or, as one of the grunts puts it, "Look at the size of that whammer!") The Americans domesticate the little devil through the generous deployment of Baby Ruths--it's impossible not to wonder how much this cost Nestlé--and give him the name "Hellboy."

Fast forward sixty years. Raised by the now elderly occultist (an unrecognizably wizened John Hurt), Hellboy has reached the fullness of demonhood, which is to say he resembles an NFL lineman after several sunscreen-free days in Tahiti. Because he ages in "reverse dog years," however, he's essentially still an adolescent--a fact which causes considerable consternation for the group that employs both him and his surrogate father, a secret branch of the FBI called the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. Also on the team are a hyper-intelligent fishman (David Hyde Pierce does the voice, but the guy wearing the gills is actor/mime Doug Jones, who played the lead Gentleman in the famous "Buffy" episode "Hush"); a pretty and pyrokinetic lass (Selma Blair) for whom Hellboy carries a torch; and a young new FBI recruit (Rupert Evans) brought on board to babysit Hellboy. Describing the group's purpose to him, Hurt explains, "There are things that go bump in the night. ... And we are the ones who bump back." Such bumping is soon called for, when Rasputin and his Nazi cohorts (one of them an assassin with a fetish for surgical self-mutilation) return to reopen up the otherworldly portal and bring about the end of the world. Chaos, of course, ensues.

If the Spider-Man and X-Men franchises found their inspiration in the '60s and '70s heyday of Marvel comics, Hellboy reaches back still further. Though the comic itself, by Mike Mignola, has only been around for a decade, it recalls the pulp adventures of the '30s and '40s (Doc Savage, The Shadow, etc.) in which the heroes still used firearms and hadn't yet discovered lycra--Hellboy, for his part, is partial to a leather trenchcoat and bullets filled with "holy water, clove leaves, silver shavings, white oak, the works." It was also a time before the A-bomb helped science replace the supernatural in our collective nightmares. (Though it's often noted that Japan's postwar monster fixation--Godzilla, Rodan, Gamera--was a sublimation of nuclear paranoia, the same connection is rarely drawn with America's '60s spate of radiation-spawned superheroes--Spider-Man, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four.) Del Toro cultivates the comic's pulp aesthetic with noirish dialogue and cinematography, anachronistic props (Hellboy smokes cigars), and occasional hints of a secret history beyond the confines of the movie itself. After showing his new recruit a collection of supernatural paraphernalia collected by the Nazis, Hurt notes that "[i]n 1958, the occult wars finally come to an end with the death of Adolph Hitler." Evans: "1945, you mean. Hitler died in '45." Hurt: "Did he now?"

All this would likely be for naught, however, if it weren't for the casting of Ron Perlman as Hellboy. Perlman is a thoughtful, charismatic actor who for years has labored under the handicap that he just doesn't look very much like a human being. His big break before Hellboy was playing Vincent, the soulful lion-man with whom Linda Hamilton (and unconscionable millions of female viewers) fell in love on the '80s show "Beauty and the Beast." Since then, he's played a hunchback (The Name of the Rose), a goat-man (The Island of Dr. Moreau), a circus freak (The City of Lost Children), a skull-faced alien (Star Trek: Nemesis), and a vampire (Blade II), among others. (To his credit, he somehow managed not to be drafted into the atrocious remake of Planet of the Apes.) He's also done a great deal of voice work--if your child has played a video game in the last decade, they have probably heard him amid the digitized carnage. Perlman's big jaw and overslung brow made him an obvious choice for Hellboy--the comic looks as though it was drawn with him in mind--but still better suited is his manner, a gruff swagger tempered by childlike vulnerability. (Think a re-fanged Vincent.) Hellboy may flip SUVs like tiddlywinks and force feed explosives to giant extraterrestrial anemones, but he also files his horns down with a belt sander in an effort to "fit in." And he pines unrequitedly for his incendiary sweetheart, even soliciting romantic advice from a nine-year-old in one of the movie's funnier sequences. The tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-mush role is a clichéd one, but Perlman handles it with dignity--no mean feat when you're wearing 50 pounds of red latex--overplaying neither the macho nor the maudlin. Hellboy won't help Perlman much with his typecasting as a sensitive monster. But at least this time he may get a sequel out of it.

The Home Movies List:
Sensitive Monsters

King Kong (1933). The Big Daddy, often imitated but yet to be exceeded (though Peter Jackson is planning a go at it). Still, if Kong was the most lifelike character in the film, his fellow actors bore much of the credit.

Young Frankenstein (1974). Why has an actor as memorable as Peter Boyle found so few memorable roles? I'd trade half his career for one more scene as funny as his "Puttin' on the Ritz" duet with Gene Wilder.

X-Men (2000). Perlman's Hellboy may be the best match to date of actor and comic-book hero, but Jackman's Wolverine is a close runner-up. One has the sense, though, that this may be it for the Aussie actor; once the claws are gone, he may be too.

Monsters, Inc. (2001). Of all the delights Pixar has supplied in its brief history, this film is the most delightful. Its last shot may be the best in the history of children's cinema.

Hulk (2003). It's anyone's guess how much better this movie might've been had the title character not been a digital cartoon. Odd as it seemed at first that Ang Lee was drawn to this story, it makes perfect sense on reflection. Like the director's previous work, Hulk was all about repression and release: Eric Bana's Green Destiny just happened to be in his bloodstream.

This post originally appeared at TNR.com.
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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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