Wicked Good

Comic book-inspired `Hellboy' puts the fun back in fighting evil.

MovieReview

April 02, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

SUN SCORE

***

It's not easy being Hellboy, what with the pointy tail, the horns that constantly need to be filed down and the comic books that try to make you look good, but never get the eyes right.

But it's easy to like Hellboy the movie, especially if you're willing to accept the very comic book-ness of the whole endeavor - the oversized heroes, the chronic need to crack wise, the monstrous villains, the world that plays by its own rules.

For in its outlandishness is this movie's very real charm, as writer-director Guillermo del Toro (Blade II) spares no outrageousness in bringing the popular Dark Horse comic to the screen. Yes, the story gets a little caught up in itself at times; those unfamiliar with the Hellboy universe may be scratching their heads. But the movie has energy enough to whip past such obstacles, and a star in Ron Perlman who's perfectly cast (he specializes in making menacing look soulful) and ceaselessly watchable.

Hellboy comes into this world seriously on the wrong side of the tracks. In the waning months of World War II, things are looking so dim for the Nazis that they'll try anything, even an alliance with the devil himself.

And so they recruit Rasputin (apparently that mad monk was more the essence of evil than a real person) to act as their go-between.

The plan: open a portal to hell and bring forth a devil spawn to wreak havoc and make the world more to the Nazis' liking. But some American soldiers get in the way. Soon the baby devil is in the hands of the good guys, who adopt him as their own.

Cut to the present. Hellboy (Perlman) is in his mid-20s, we're told (hell spawn don't age as fast as we do), and he's a good guy - in the nature vs. nurture debate, Hellboy comes down decidedly on the side of the latter. Still, he's not exactly cuddly. He's foul-mouthed and ill-tempered, with horns he's constantly shaving down.

He's also bright red, virtually indestructible, the most effective secret weapon in the arsenal of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Development. He has a thing for cats (as pets, not food). And he's fiercely loyal to his "father," Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt), the researcher who snatched him from the Nazis.

Good thing he's on our side, too, because Rasputin is back. And he's got a bunch of tentacled, slime-spewing, spiritually immortal monsters to help him.

Hellboy has a great time with itself; in the great comics tradition started by Stan Lee and Marvel Comics back in the 1960s. It doesn't take itself too seriously, yet lets its drama play out in ways both thrilling and intricate. In the grand comics tradition, the end of the world is a time fraught with peril, but that doesn't mean there isn't time for a chuckle or two.

Perlman is a riot, filled with sarcasm and caustic wit that pops up at the strangest moments. He's also got a tender side, as seen in his infatuation with Liz (Selma Blair), a fellow traveler with the BPRD who struggles to control her alarming propensity for bursting into flames. A surprisingly touching subplot involves Hellboy's inability to express his feelings for Liz (can a creature born in hell know love?). But even here, the film's humor is never far from the surface; at one point, Hellboy is spying on Liz from a roof and being counseled on the vagaries of love by a 9-year-old who thinks his new friend's comic-book exploits are the coolest.

Hellboy takes some shortcuts I wish it hadn't; the origin scenes seem almost an afterthought, and it would be fascinating to see a movie in which we watch Hellboy grow up, struggling to contain his assuredly baser instincts. And there are simply too many nasty monsters running about; in comics, too many such creatures suggest a lack of imagination on the part of the creators.

But Perlman and his hard-luck creature are more than enough to keep this movie on course. Hellboy is, to borrow a phrase, one helluva good time.

Hellboy

Starring Ron Perlman, Selma Blair

Directed by Guillermo del Toro

Rated PG-13 (comic-book violence, language)

Released by Columbia Pictures

Time 125 minutes

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