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Hellboy

Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Jeffrey Tambor, Karel Roden, John Hurt, Rupert Evans

(Columbia; US theatrical: 2 Apr 2004; 2004)

Knowing Monsters

The latest hero for our time is red. Fire engine red. Looming over the city from a rooftop, he puffs his cigar and glowers. He’s prodigious, swaggery, and slightly slouchy, with a prominent forehead and impressively misshapen right forearm, made of stone and gigantor-sized. He’s fond of pancakes, chili, and a girl named Liz. He is Hellboy.


As embodied by the frankly magnificent Ron Perlman, he is also the star of Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy, the latest beloved-comic-book-based movie to come down the big screen pike. Like all such projects, the film is simultaneously burdened and buoyed by fan expectations. Conceived and written in collusion with Mike Mignola, creator of the Dark Horse Comic, the movie includes details and favorite characters to please proudly self-described “geeks,” as more general, easily identifiable appeals to non-aficionados. Such broad design, however, also makes the movie predictable and not a little derivative.


That’s not to say that it doesn’t also tweak or satirize conventions. The hero’s origin story, for instance, involves not only a dark and scary night and Nazis, but also a makeshift familial unit and the establishment of enemies for life. Thus, in 1944, a crew of Nazi scientists, led by no less a villain than the resurrected monk Grigori Rasputin (Karel Roden), is cooking up a portal to hell, which will unleash assorted demons, massive tentacles, and basic chaos, and basically kill the world. Some Allied troops arrive just in time to thwart the experiment, accompanied by one Dr. Broom Bruttenholm (played for this pre-credits sequence by Kevin Trainor, and thereafter by John Hurt in an Einsteinian fright wig).


The doctor’s primary function, aside from narrating the action, is to adopt the little dollop of hell served up by the aborted evildoing: the adorable Hellboy, whom he seduces with a Baby Ruth. Cut forward—via a tabloid headlines montage that chronicle Bigfoot-style sightings and government denials of Hellboy—to present day, when the grown up Hellboy is working with his adoptive dad for the U.S. Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, battling monsters with fishy empath Abe Sapien (embodied by Doug Jones, voiced by David Hyde-Pierce, channeling C-3PO), daily filing his devil’s horns (so he can “fit in”), and yearning for his one true love, firestarter Liz (Selma Blair), who has recently left the BPRD for an institution, where she’s endeavoring to control her powers, that is, be “normal.”


While Liz’s blue-flamey spurts are the film’s weakest effects, its best is certainly Ron Perlman, seemingly destined for this role in the way that Shelley Duvall was born to play live Olive Oyl. That’s not to say that he wasn’t pretty perfect in tv’s Beauty and the Beast, and in a series of collaborations with directors with particular interests in gloomily intricate surfaces, namely Jean-Pierre Jeunet (with whom he worked in Le cité des enfants perdus [1995] and Alien: Resurrection [1997]), and del Toro (Cronos [1993] and Blade II [2002]). It is to say that he’s terrific here. Whether delivering not-so-clever one-liners (“I’m fireproof, you’re not”) or scribbling undelivered love notes to Liz, Hellboy is so impeccably incarnated by the 54-year-old Perlman, aided considerably by Rock Baker’s sensational makeup, that you wish the rest of the movie might keep up with him.


Borrowing fundamental plot points from Ghostbusters, the Alien franchise, The X-Files, X-Men, and Beauty and the Beast, as well as H.P. Lovecraft, Hellboy sets its hero in a series of expected conflicts. First, he’s got to stop those odious Nazis: the re-resurrected Rasputin, his devoted and rather she-wolfy lady-love Ilsa (Biddy Hodson, whose one-note role is not a little tedious), and the gas-masked Kroenen (Ladislav Beran), an erstwhile human so over-operated-on that now his blood is turned to dust and he lacks eyelids or lips; he does, however, manage flashy ninja-style swordsmanship and wirework. In keeping with their self-interest, they’ve devised a creature, the Hound of Resurrection, Sammael (Brian Steele, plus lots of CGI), whose death each time results in the birth of two more, from eggs laid in the subway.


Hellboy’s other nemesis is a more familiar type: the grumpy BPRD Agent Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor) distrusts that monsters (Hellboy, Abe, and Liz) are on point for the fight against monsters “You have an insight,” Tom sneers. You know monsters”). As tough as he pretends to be, Tom is, of course, terminally fearful of otherness, thus serving as the traditional comic book phobe (such that his narrow-mindedness might stand in for racism, misogyny, or homophobia). Hellboy’s outrageous otherness—even with the horns assiduously filed, there’s no way he can pass for non-other on the street—makes him the ideal object of abhorrence for Tom, who tends to mutter grand threats about shutting down the unit, much as the X-Files’ anxious boss men used to do.


Being the outlaw agrees with Hellboy, of course (he is a demon, even for the moral sense Broom has instilled in him). Affectionately codenamed “Red” by his fellow agents, he revels in being a bit of a loose cannon (regularly “escaping” from his secret room at BPRD to visit Liz at the hospital, or going off on missions that aren’t precisely authorized), he’s also rather awkward socially, tending to enter into dangerous situations solo and understand protecting the world as his own lot in life; as Abe describes it, he’s into “the whole lonely hero thing.


This sense of destiny makes him skeptical of the straight-laced FBI agent Broom recruits to look after him (Broom seeing the end of his own days, whether or not the world survives the Rasputin-engineered Armageddon). Young John Myers (Rupert Evans) is as dull a pretty boy as you might wish for, duly eclipsed by Hellboy’s energetically dour affect. Still, his very normalcy appeals to Liz (or at least, this is what Hellboy intuits, watching her face closely for the slightest sign of interest), which muddles Hellboy’s feelings toward him.


His confusion makes him endearing. While the BPRD goes through any number of action scenes in their efforts to stop Rasputin’s scheme, the most entertaining scenes are those focused on Hellboy’s mundane romantic travails. So, when Liz goes out for a little park bench coffee with John, Hellboy leaps over a few rooftops in order to position himself above them and across the street. Here the eight and a half feet tall monster is discovered by a boy tending pigeons (“Hey, you’re Hellboy!”), whom he swears to secrecy because, he whispers, he’s “on a mission.” With that, the pair begins a vigil of sorts, watching the conversation and John’s clumsy flirtation, the kid providing milk and cookies and advice: “Tell her how you feel.” “It’s not that easy,” Hellboy sighs. “Plus, you’re nine.”


Such witty moments help alleviate the film’s more unwieldy and banal machinations (the digital effects, save for Hellboy himself, are especially unconvincing). For the most part, Hellboy seems unsure of how to handle this “working class” hero (though this is the usual designation for the indestructible Hellboy, it must be said that he is equipped, courtesy of a government budget, with state of the art anti-monster weaponry and gadgets). Still, its timing is right: along with the other vengeance-seeking heroes currently coming to theaters near you—The Rock, The Punisher—Hellboy serves up well-motivated, gaudy violence. It’s a fantasy for this political moment: many U.S. moviegoers are feeling either disenfranchised and deceived, or righteous and deserving. Demonically, Hellboy works for both.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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