Ripped from the pages of the Dark Horse comic book, Hellboy offers spurts of ingenuity and quirky humor, but too often it’s a loud, over-crafted bore.
Hellboy starts in 1944 Scotland. The Nazis and a back-from-the-dead Rasputin team up to open a portal in hopes of unleashing the Seven Gods of Chaos. They want to enroll them in their campaign for world domination, or, more precisely, world devastation.
Mercifully, the U.S. Army is there to intervene and before all Hell breaks loose, the Nazis’ nefarious plot is thwarted. But not before a member of that otherworld makes his way to Earth. A little red devil, he’s quickly won over by a couple Babe Ruth bars and a blankie. Nothing more than a tyke with Satanic potential, he’s adopted by the Army’s chief scientist and affectionately dubbed “Hellboy,” or “HB” for short.
The action then cuts to modern-day Newark, New Jersey, home to the super-secret ghost-busting agency called the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD). Much like the unassuming headquarters for the Men in Black (another Dark Horse comic brought to the silver screen), the BPRD is disguised as a waste management company.
Inside the BPRD the fantastic happens. Dr. Broom (John Hurt, Alien), HB’s adoptive father, whiles away the time monitoring evil and tending to his entourage of good souls, including Abe Sapien (given the voice of David Hyde Pierce), a merman with mind reading capabilities, and Liz Sherman (Selma Blair, Cruel Intentions), a girl tormented by her fiery talents.
Then there’s Hellboy. Aging along a different path from humans, he’s merely in his mid-20s. A stogie-chomping, Red Bull-drinking, cat-loving do-gooder, he longs for something like a normal life and love, but the evil-doers allow him no rest.
Hellboy is at its best when it’s dealing with the everyday lives of these highly unusual lead characters in the BPRD. That’s when this unlikely bunch really shows what they’re made of and the cast gets an opportunity to shine. Hurt is great as Dr. Broom; he’s only slightly more recognizable under his makeup than Ron Perlman, who makes a smooth segue from Beauty and the Beast’s makeup chair to Hellboy’s. Blair also manages to bring an empathetic edge to her sullen character.
New to the team is a wet-behind-the-ears recruit, John Myers (Rupert Evans in his feature film debut), a young man with no particular paranormal skills. Like any normal single guy, he’s quick to make his moves on Liz, much to the displeasure of HB.
Therein are the film’s primary strengths: It does have heart and a good sense of humor. But too much of Hellboy is spent unraveling a nearly incoherent story and jumping to special effects-laden chases and fights with rapidly-reproducing squid-like monsters that are more dull than spectacular. It’s a case where the action would be better off taking a back seat to the characters.
Also like Men in Black, the members of the BPRD protect a world they have a limited ability to enjoy personally. But MiB played it more for laughs while Hellboy tries to have it both ways as both a hardcore horror/action extravaganza and also as a relatively laid back comedy.
As soon as the “action” kicks in, the movie hits the ground running, but like an out-of-shape retired superhero, it sputters just when it should kick butt. Director Guillermo del Toro (Blade II) simply can’t sustain a sense of exhilarating pacing in the midst of all the computer-generated gimmickry.
Pinned down by a nearly incoherent storyline, there’s no real sense of danger and the action actually becomes tedious. It all leads up to a dènouement that defies explanation, but it has something to do with a lunar eclipse, Hellboy’s “real name,” and, gosh, the complete and utter destruction of civilization as we know it.
For a movie that throws a lot of good ideas on the screen, it’s a shame the entire package doesn’t hold together better. Hellboy even carries with it something resembling a genuine message, amidst the likes of a “surgery-addicted” villain and a protagonist who’s shaved off his horns so he can better blend in, that we should love people for their defects.
If only Hellboy, the movie, with all its defects, were more loveable.