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From Hell

 

Hellboy

Guillermo del Toro, USA, 2004

Rating: 3.6

 

 

Posted: April 6, 2004

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Hellboy, the comic-book hero created by Mike Mignola, is a demon brought into our world during a failed Nazi experiment, a baby devil raised to defend the Earth against menaces not unlike himself. In short, he's a creature at odds with his past. That's also an apt summation of Hellboy, the movie, which struggles to reconcile its Gothic Horror underpinnings (including heavy-handed Catholic imagery) with the demands of crafting an enjoyable popcorn feature. It's a testament to noted horror director Guillermo del Toro's unflagging faith in the source material that Hellboy strikes as much of a delicate balance as it does. But like its titular protagonist, a hulking red brute with a tail, sanded-down devil horns and a right arm made of stone, Hellboy has trouble fitting in with its surroundings.

The plot, (very) loosely adapted from Mignola's first Hellboy miniseries, Seed of Destruction, puts the character's remove from civilization front and center: Hellboy, an agent of a super-secret government organization, the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD), is forced to keep his existence under wraps, existing only as an urban legend that the put-upon director Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor) is constantly forced to deny. (Note to the writers: Maybe having him wear a jacket emblazoned with the bureau's logo, which also adorns a plane it uses later in the film, isn't the best way to stay hidden.)

Thus, Hellboy lives as a virtual prisoner at BPRD headquarters, where he pines for the ultimate symbol of inclusion and belonging: an unrequited love, in the person of pyrokinetic Liz Sherman (a subdued Selma Blair). When a BPRD investigation of a monster sighting at a nearby museum pits Hellboy against figures from his past, at the same time Liz Sherman is pursued by Hellboy's new handler, the boyishly handsome agent John Myers (Rupert Evans), the stage is set for our misfit to question his allegiance to a race that turns its back on him.

That Hellboy doesn't do so substantially weakens the film, as we're left with only external physical threats -- a resurrected mystic who may or may not be Rasputin, the legendary Mad Monk, plus an assortment of snarling creatures and a blade-wielding assassin who walks around wearing what looks like a very sinister gas mask - for our hero to confront. When Grigori Rasputin (Karel Rodin) reveals to Hellboy his true purpose, our working-stiff good guy isn't even slightly seduced by the revelation of his dark origins and purpose. With no internal struggle to anchor the story on a human plane, Hellboy simply becomes a movie about a creature who uses brute force to take down a slew of opponents, all the while seeming annoyed by the constant distractions from his crush.

Granted, that movie is a visually entertaining one, from the slavering beasts Hellboy wrestles to his BPRD colleague, the enigmatic amphibian Abe Sapien (movements by Doug Jones, voice by Frasier's David Hyde Pierce). And the film's opening sequence, in which a young occultist named Professor Broom and some Allied troops disrupt Rasputin's attempt to call forth some nasty Lovecraftian demons into our world, crackles with the adolescent energies of old adventure serials and Raiders of the Lost Ark. There are moments when the rest of Hellboy threatens to live up to that early promise, but the mechanical plot, unrelentingly grim lighting, neo-Gothic/Exorcist imagery and gruesome (mostly implied) violence -- particularly the murder of the adult Broom (played with game gravity by John Hurt) -- pull the film in different directions.

Ron Perlman, who's made a tidy career out of playing similar outcasts and misfits, invests the title role with a gruff, Average Joe demeanor that allows us to feel an amiable affection for Hellboy; he more than validates Mignola's and del Toro's unshakable belief that he's perfect for the part. But Perlman, an actor of supple gifts underneath all that makeup, can only do so much with what he's given: He can't keep Hellboy from its fate as a lurching patchwork of horror- and action-movie elements, sewn together into something that looks new but feels as awkward and vaguely familiar as its protagonist's appearance.

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