The Moviehunter

Pulp Culture
'Hellboy' is a fun character-driven adventure

April 8, 2004
By Franklin Harris

Guillermo del Toro possesses an infectious enthusiasm for the things he loves. I first noticed this in an interview he gave on Mexican horror director Juan Lopez Moctezuma for the DVD release of Moctezuma's "Alucarda." Now, as del Toro makes the rounds promoting his own film, "Hellboy," I see it again.

Ron Perlman stars in ''Hellboy.''
© Copyright Revolution Studios
Ron Perlman stars in ''Hellboy.''
But never mind del Toro's publicity tour. "Hellboy" is a fun, action-packed romp that is quite capable of generating enthusiasm on its own.

"Hellboy" is based on Mike Mignola's comic book of the same name. And right from the opening sequence, set in 1944, it is clear that writer/director del Toro has the skill as well as the enthusiasm to transform Mignola's "Hellboy" into his own "Hellboy," without losing the spirit of the original.

Nazis led by the mad Russian monk Rasputin (the rumors of his death having been greatly exaggerated) have slipped into Scotland to perform an occult ritual. Using a contraption out of a "Frankenstein" movie, Rasputin (Karel Roden) plans to open a gateway to another dimension, loose the unspeakable, godlike creatures trapped there and lay waste to the world, allowing the Nazis to pick up the pieces.

Among Rasputin's cohorts are a female Nazi officer with typical Nazi ice-queen beauty (Bridget Hodson) and a masked Nazi assassin who knows kung fu.

From the costumes to the set design, the scene looks like something out of a 1930s pulp magazine.

Fortunately, a squad of U.S. soldiers, advised by paranormal investigator Trevor Bruttenholm (pronounced "Broom"), is there to stop Rasputin and company, but not before Rasputin opens his portal, if only for a few minutes, allowing something to slip through. That something is a baby demon with bright red skin, a pair of tiny horns and one hand made of stone. Bruttenholm "adopts" the demon, and he and the soldiers name it Hellboy. For better or worse, Bruttenholm later muses, the name sticks.

Jump to the present day. Hellboy (Ron Perlman) works for the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, a secret government agency that "bumps back" when things go bump in the night. He is a blue-collar hero: chomping on cigars, traveling "undercover" in a garbage truck, fighting monsters and generally taking a beating in the process. His partner is a psychic fish-man named Abe Sapien (think "Creature from the Black Lagoon"). Abe is a combination of make-up effects, CGI and David Hyde Pierce's voice. And overseeing the BPRD is Hellboy's "dad," professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt).

Although he is 60 years old, Hellboy is still an adolescent at heart. He breaks out of the BPRD's compound for nights out and appears in fuzzy video footage shown on tabloid television. Like any adolescent, Hellboy wants to fit in. He grinds his horns down to nubs to look more human. But, Hellboy's adolescent awkwardness isn't just a phase.

Complicating matters is Hellboy's love for former BPRD teammate Liz Sherman (Selma Blair). Liz is a firestarter who accidentally killed her family when her powers first manifested. She wants to be normal, but Hellboy and the BPRD are grim reminders that she isn't. Still, Hellboy is fireproof, and that may be a sign that the two belong together.

The plot revolves around the BPRD's efforts to thwart Rasputin (still not dead) and Hellboy fighting several of Rasputin's H.P. Lovecraft-inspired beasts. It's standard stuff supported by better-than-average special effects. But it's the performances that make "Hellboy" stand above the average action film. Perlman approaches Hellboy as a melancholy tough guy, while Blair brings a wounded vulnerability to Liz. When del Toro deviates from the comics, it's usually to strengthen the emotional relationships between the characters.

There are some shaky moments. The pacing is off at times, and the ending is a bit anticlimactic. But overall "Hellboy" sets a high standard for the rest of this year's comic-book movies to meet.

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