Hell is for children
Dark Horse comics character spawns impressive, if convoluted, treatment by Spanish auteur Guillermo del Toro
Imagine Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune (from Kurosawa’s Yojimbo) erupting from Hell, all flaming red, sporting sawed-off horns and wielding a granite fist in lieu of a samurai sword, and you might have an idea of what Ron Perlman’s spot-on take of the Dark Horse comic book (oops, sorry, graphic novel) superhero Hellboy is all about.
But, in terms of narrative, writer/director Guillermo del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone) seems to have taken on more than he can handle, as a result unleashing a bombastic mish-mash that bludgeons the viewer as if to distract from the fact the proceedings aren’t making a lick of sense.
I’ll try to explain: Toward the twilight of World War II, Rasputin the Mad Monk (looking well-rested and buff after being poisoned, shot, stabbed, beaten and left for dead back on the eve of the Russian Revolution) hooks up with Hitler’s Black Magic Ops on some remote Scottish isle. Their goal is to try to open up a portal to another dimension to unleash what looks to be some big ol’ beastie that owes more than a nod to author H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. Unfortunately for their nefarious plot—but fortunately for the fate of the free world—our plucky GIs rush in and put the kibosh on the proceedings, with Rasputin being sucked back into the vortex and a cute li’l imp being spat out in return. They feed him Baby Ruth bars and dub him Hellboy.
Flash forward to the present day. Hellboy works for the Bureau for Paranormal Research, a kind of X-Files version of the CIA headed by the kindly Dr. Bloom, who had been with the Allies on that raid and had taken Hellboy under his wing. Also on hand is some aquatic fish man with psychic powers (Doug Jones of Frazier) and a pyrotechnic hottie (Selma Blair). The Doc is on his last legs, so he brings in some FBI upstart (Rupert Evans) to take over as Hellboy’s handler (and Hellboy is definitely a handful, prone to sneaking out and compromising the secret doings of the agency).
Just in time, too: Seems that Rasputin’s hardbody Aryan groupie has managed to bring the bad boy back from his inter-dimension field trip, in gratitude for making her immortal. Of course, he brings back a little bit of something extra in his genetic blueprint, and so it’s back to work in bringing about The Old Ones’ return to reign on Earth, in the interim sending multi-tentacled lizard-thingies to keep our heroes pre-occupied. Or something like that.
Such ludicrousness shouldn’t work; characters are introduced and abandoned with seeming no reason, transitions occur with no explanation, and the recurring battles between immortal nemeses grow tiring. But Hellboy modestly succeeds despite itself. Del Toro has an undeniable eye for sturm-und-drang pageantry, a deft talent for neo-Victorian imagery, and a sure hand at keeping the action moving despite any inconsistencies that struggle to get in the way. And, while the script may be implausible, it is admittedly clever, with a droll sense of humor that is especially highlighted when delivered by Perlman’s turn as the cigar-chomping tough guy with a soft heart.
Perlman finally gets to take center stage again after virtually disappearing from American consciousness post-Beauty and the Beast. He returns here with a vengeance, delivering lines like a world-weary Sgt. Rock while still holding his unconsummated love for Blair’s character in check.
Hellboy seems to be a transitional piece for del Toro. With nods to his past (a clockwork-hearted assassin an obvious nod to his debut entry, the offbeat vampire cult fave Chronos), he also indicates themes explored by Lovecraft as a trial run for his next project, an adaptation of the novella At the Mountains of Madness.