April 2, 2004

The short version is that Hellboy is a fine adaptation of Mike Mignola’s comic. Sure, it’s possible to pick on the details, but the movie as a whole is an entertaining and remarkable foray into a world of monsters, oddities, and the occult. It’s a solid adventure movie made more memorable by folks like Rupert Evans (Agent Myers), Selma Blair (Liz Sherman), the splendid John Hurt (Professor Broom, who’s voiceovers delightfully make the movie feel like an episode of The Storyteller), and of course, Ron Perlman (Hellboy). Hellboy starts better than it ends, which left me coming out of the theater less excited than I was even a half hour before. Let’s not do that here. First: what got in the way of my fun.

By the standards of average movie-goers, Hellboy‘s got plenty of monsters, from exquisitely costumed Nazi assassins to faceless cthonic tentacle-beasts to Abe Sapien. By the standards of Hellboy readers, though, the movie feels light on monsters. Hellboy rarely faces the same beast more than once in a single story, but in the picture he fights the same monster three or more times. These fights are exciting and different enough, but eventually they felt like missed opportunities to show us something new. With the variety and depth of the sets in this movie, it feels unappreciative to make a complaint like that, but there it is.

Worse, Rasputin (Karel Roden, Bulletproof Monk)–besides not actually having much to do–spends a lot of the movie in a Jokerish purple suit and black sunglasses that don’t do him any favors. Another audience member with me said he looked like Joe Pantoliano’s Cipher (The Matrix). Is this the best Guillermo del Toro could do with the Mad Monk? I doubt it.

Hellboy has the kind of third act that drives me nuts in an action movie, but not so much that I won’t see it again. The movie doesn’t earn its ending. The climax of the movie behaves like it’s about something, but everything happens so quickly and simply, it’s like the movie mentions something. Note also that del Toro puts the characters into a situation that they can’t get out of unless he cheats, so cheat he does. In a climax that depends on tough choices, you can’t let the characters get off without consequences; that declaws the drama. Nevermind that the drama has already taken a hard hit in Rasputin’s unimpressive final scene.

Also, the opening titles are startlingly lame in an awful sort of low-res, swooping camera, pull-back-to-reveal-the-title way. What a shame. Get through those, and the worst is behind you.

All that said, Hellboy‘s an awfully entertaining adventure flick. Come for special effects, absolutely awesome make-up work, gorgeous sets, and a giant stone fistful of gleeful fighting and you’ll get nice character chemistry for no extra charge. Where I think del Toro’s script is a bit weak in summation, it shines in its individual moments. Background BPRD agents have bits of rapport, main characters give off a great sense of history together, and Ron Perlman offers some great throwaway moments of character-illuminating comedy. Keep your eyes peeled.

Perlman carries the whole of this movie on his back and has a great time doing it. He may not match the Hellboy you imagine from reading the books–Perlman plays him a skosh more scampish than I imagined him–but he gives us a great performance that’s clearly interpreting the character Mignola drew. Perlman will make the movie for folks who didn’t come for the fantasy elements. He’s good. He’s real good.

If Hellboy does well, it may open the door for more films that take risks with mid-sized budgets and lesser-known stars. It could set a precedent for film adaptations that don’t make a crippling number of compromises to get into production. Yes, Hellboy makes compromises to satisfy a larger audience, but it hasn’t been changed to appeal to a different audience. That distinction could get some other modest and fun movies made if it were backed by success at the theater.

Here’s the gist of it: If I tell you a scene in Hellboy features a box of kittens in peril and the wonderful absurdity of that doesn’t turn you off, then you’ll have a good time.



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