Hollywood really does seem to be picking up on how to do the comic book superhero adaptation. First, Spider-Man, then X2: X-Men United, and now Hellboy surprises. For a good while, making a movie from a comic book was the equivalent of picking through a landfill for dinner ingredients. Morsels like Batman & Robin, Spawn, and Steel were certain to induce heaving. Not that they are getting it right every time if Daredevil, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, or Hulk are any indication. Still, one hit for every four times at bat isn’t bad in baseball, and it’s quite good for Hollywood.
Hellboy is based on the Mike Mignola Dark Horse comic. As a matter of course, the closer the movie sticks with the original material, the better it is. Often screenwriters who decide to supply their own take on a character end up losing the essence of what makes that character appealing in the first place. Batman becomes a real introverted stiff or Hulk loses his tragic Frankenstein quality. Guillermo del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone, Cronos) directed and co-wrote Hellboy with devout faithfulness to Mignola’s vision. The deadpan humor combines with inventive action and real character development.
The story begins in 1944. Nazi occultists led by Russian sorcerer Grigori Rasputin (Karel Roden, Blade II) open a dimensional barrier to call on mystical forces to salvage their losing World World II effort. Brit paranormal scientist Dr. Broom (John Hurt, Owning Mahowny) leads American forces to stop them. The ensuing conflict leaves a field of scattered bodies along with the oddest newborn. Broom takes in this “red monkey” with horns, a prehensile tail, and a bulky, brick-like right arm. Hellboy (Ron Perlman, The City of Lost Children), as he is christened, possesses immense strength and invulnerability. He also becomes the preeminent member of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, the secret federal agency in charge of combating supernatural threats to humanity.
Sixty years later, Hellboy has physically aged to be only in his early 20s. His fellow teammates include sometimes girlfriend Liz Sherman (Selma Blair, Cruel Intentions), a “pyrokinetic” who controls fire, and Abe Sapien (Doug Jones, Adaptation), an enigmatic merman with extrasensory perception. When the villainous Rasputin, his mistress Ilsa (Biddy Hodson, Loaded), and Nazi undead ninja assassin (yes, you read that right) Karl Kroenen (Ladislav Beran) come back to destroy the world in the present, it is up to Hellboy and his team to stop them.
Hellboy doesn’t demonstrate great originality, but what del Toro does so well is energize old genre tropes by making them specific and personal to these characters. Each of them has a primary motivation and their goals continually bounce off of one another. Hellboy deals with being an outsider freak (he has sawed off his horns to better “fit in”) while trying to get back together with Liz. Liz worries about her powers going out of control again and accidentally killing people. Broom, who is dying from cancer, tries to make the best future he can for those he is leaving behind. Then there is recent FBI graduate, John Myers (Rupert Evans), Hellboy’s rookie government liaison, who does his best to prove himself and fit in with his far more experienced teammates. The one real disappointment in the movie is a poor, perfunctory climax that feels casual rather than properly dramatized.
Ron Perlman plays the role of his career. Not only does the 54-year old actor get to play someone in his early 20s, but he gets to bag 31-year old Selma Blair. The two indeed make an odd “Beauty and the Beast” couple (Perlman also starred in the television series of that title) with his 6’3 tower looming over her lithe frame.