That Old Black Magick: Hellboy
Rob Levy
3/31/2004 1:09:47 PM

Move over Batman, step aside Superman, hang it up Darkman, there’s a new force in the comic book film world! His name is Hellboy and he kicks ass!

Mike Mignola deserves every bit of money he earns off of the new Hellboy movie. Throughout his career in the comics industry, Mignola has been true to his art, never selling out or doing anything cheap, silly or knock-offish. His Hellboy comic series is wholly original, inventive and interesting. As a franchise, Hellboy has all the great trademarks of a powerful epic, love, hope, faith in humanity, good-versus-evil and the struggle to know oneself. In its current form, Hellboy endures as an enjoyable collection of stories because it is intelligent, articulate and witty without being too silly or cavalier.

All of this makes Hellboy’s leap from the comic pages to the big screen even more successful. Now I know what you are thinking, we don’t need another comic book film… and you are probably right. However, Guillermo del Toro’s filmed adaptation of Hellboy is something special indeed.

For starters, Hellboy broadens the comic book film genre by taking guys with powers and goofy suits and adding character development, heart, integrity and a sense of humor. This film transcends the now redundant ‘mutant as savior of humanity’ plot trappings, in favor of a lighter script with moments of rage, loss and destiny. Make no bones about it; this film is not an X-Men knock off.

Hellboy tells the story of a baby demon, Hellboy, who was thrown into our world in 1944 during a freak attempt by the Sorcerer Rasputin (Czech actor and del Toro alum Karel Roden) and his occult-crazed Nazi henchmen to open a gateway to Hell, unleashing the demonic forces for their control. A group American GI’s, led by noted occultist Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt), interrupts the Nazi ceremony and closes the gateway, leaving the demon infant to grow up with humanity. Hellboy becomes the ward of Bruttenholm and the BPRD, the Bureau for Paranormal Research & Defense, founded covertly by the US Government to “push back” at things that go bump in the night. Hellboy grows up in secrecy, mentored by the Professor on the ways of humanity. Although Hellboy resides happily with Federal Agents and another mutant, the Aqua-Mer-Man Abe Phibian, he is in inner turmoil, searching for his own identity and purpose. The only thing that soothes this savage beast is his love for fellow mutant Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), a mutant girl who immerses herself in flame when she is angered. The problem is that Liz has left the group to live in the outside world and find herself. Things become upended when the Professor realizes that he is dying. Concerned for Hellboy’s future, he recruits BPRD agent Jon Myers to replace him as Hellboy’s handler. Myers (Rupert Evans) quickly realizes how difficult this task really is. Hellboy is brash, brutish, snide and temperamental. It takes all of his patience and understanding to work with Hellboy. Their relationship becomes sticky when Myers’ pursues Liz with comedic results.

Unbeknownst to Hellboy and his friends, Kroener, an evil Nazi psychotic killing machine, has revived the dormant, demonic conjurer Rasputin. Rasputin has sinister machinations, through black magic he intends to bring about Ragnarok, the opening of the gates of Hell on Earth. Rasputin carefully sets a trap that will lure the gateway’s keymaster, Hellboy, to him. This sets in motion an epic battle of muscle and wits that climaxes with Hellboy having to choose how he wants to live his life, as a demon, or as a human.

Ron Perlman (Hellboy) has spent the last two decades consistently building an impressive body of work. This solid and albeit unheralded great actor is best known for his work on the 80s series, “Beauty & The Beast,” as well as his TV cartoon voice work. He has worked with del Toro previously in both Cronos and Blade 2. However he may best be known for his great turns in City Of Lost Children, Romeo Is Bleeding, and Alien Resurrection. Perlman’s performances have always been rock solid. In this film, Perlman gives HB some charm by adding some comedic touches to his gruff exterior, and firing off of one-liners that gives Hellboy some needed levity. He also says a lot by not saying a word. As Hellboy, his expressions, mannerisms and movements portray a hero who is conflicted, anxious and unsettled.

Selma Blair (Cruel Intentions, Down To You) is an emerging actress who gets better and better with each passing film. In Hellboy she plays Liz as an intelligent, cerebral and conflicted girl whose sense of caustic despair and gloom makes the audience immediately feel her pain. Liz is torn apart by her affection for Hellboy and her desire to understand her powers.

As far as the rest of the cast goes, it is a nice ensemble. Karel Roden’s performance is diabolically enjoyable. He has nailed the comic book villain archetype perfectly. He plays Rasputin as a bloodthirsty, ruthless and aggressive baddy. He is the puppet master that drives the evil of the film and he doesn’t allow Hellboy to fall flat. After all, every good hero needs an evil nemesis. Although not given much to work with, Hurt gives his character a sense of dignity and paternity that really helps with softer moments. Rupert Evans, A TV veteran in his film debut, is also enjoyable as agent Myers. He aptly conveys the frustration and grief that undoubtedly comes with having a friend like Hellboy.

Hellboy may just be Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece. He has managed to capture the illustrations of the Mignola’s comics on film and taken the comics to a new level. For the film, he preserved the aesthetics and atmospherics of the comic books themselves while creating a rich film with lots of visual texture, detail and subtlety. Mr. del Toro has carved a career for himself as a cinematic visionary. His films usually involve the supernatural, featuring dark backgrounds, eerie sets, religious iconography and Steampunk-looking mechanical contraptions. He gets great performance from his ensembles, resulting in complete, tightly-packed films that titillate visually without sacrificing plotlines. His first feature, Cronos (1993) ushered in a wave of interest in Mexican vampire films. In 2001 his film, Devil’s Backbone was a huge success on the festival circuit and even garnered international acclaim. Two of his films, Blade 2 (in 2002, with Mignola, also involved) and Mimic (1997) were big budget films that slightly disappointed at the box office.

Hellboy, the first blockbuster film of 2004, is simply terrific. Despite having a hokey plot, culled from an amalgamation of stories from the run of the comic book, it remains hot as Hell. Stellar performances from Perlman and Blair mix well with the amazing effects, great action sequences and terrific sets, set off by Marco Betrami’s amazing score. There are other superhero films out there, but few of them will entertain new audiences while retaining enough faithfulness to their comic origins for hardcore fans. In the case of Hellboy, red means go!


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