This review was revised on April 1, 2004.
A rock-the-house sci-fi/fantasy extravaganza in which sound and fury is deftly apportioned with heart and soul, “Hellboy” seems a labor of love for helmer Guillermo del Toro (“Blade II”). An acknowledged comic buff, helmer enthusiastically described his pic as “made by geeks for geeks.” Based on Mike Mignola’s cult-fave Dark Horse comic series, pic has more than enough across-the-board appeal to attract mainstream auds unfamiliar with source material. Expect blazing biz and hellaciously strong B.O. numbers during leggy theatrical run followed by red-hot homevid sales.
Inspired primarily by “Seed of Destruction,” Mignola’s first “Hellboy” story cycle, and “The Corpse,” a later tale recently reissued by Dark Horse, del Toro’s scenario occasionally echoes “Men in Black,” “X-Men,” del Toro’s own “Mimic” — and more than a few classic tales by horror writer H.P. Lovecraft.
Effective blood-and-thunder prologue set during WWII introduces Trevor “Broom” Bruttenholm (initially played by Kevin Trainor) as a supernatural expert for Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, a super-secret U.S. organization dedicated to battling German efforts to wage war with black magic.
On a dark, stormy night in Scotland, Broom and an Army commando unit interrupt curiously undead Grigori Rasputin (Karel Roden) as the infamous Russian mystic leads Nazi scientists and soldiers in an effort to use a “Hell-Hole Generator” to transport Ogdru Jahad (a.k.a., Seven Gods of Chaos) to Earth. A gun battle, the pic’s first spectacular set piece, ensues. After the battle, Rasputin disappears with two key associates — Kroenen (Ladislav Beran), masked and blade-wielding immortal, and Ilsa (Bridget Hodson), icy blond beauty. But Broom and commandos find the generator did manage to transport a surprise package: A bright red imp festooned with horns and a pointed tail. Broom names the foundling Hellboy.
Sixty-plus years later, anailing, aging Broom (John Hurt) is still aligned with Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, and is still serving as surrogate father to Hellboy (Ron Perlman). Latter has grown into a massive and muscular figure with a misshapen right hand (credit Rick Baker for spot-on Hellboy makeup).
Big guy smokes cigars, gobbles Baby Ruths and speaks in the terse, tough-guy argot of a film noir hero. But he keeps his horns filed downso the stubs resemble a pair of goggles pushed onto his forehead.
Hellboy lives with Broom at BPRD headquarters in Newark, N.J., usually venturing out only to aid in investigation and destruction of paranormal threats. Occasionally, however, he takes unauthorized trips into the outside world, causing “Hellboy sightings” that must be explained away by government spokesperson — and, secretly, BPRD supervisor — Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor).
Lately, Hellboy has repeatedly gone AWOL to reconnect with sad-eyed Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), who fled BPRD and committed herself to a mental hospital because she fears she can no longer control her fire-spreading, pyrokinetic powers. H.B. loves her, of course, but duty calls. Along with fellow BPRD regular Abe Sapien (played by Doug Jones, amusingly voiced by unbilled David Hyde Piece), a scaly and telepathic “gill man” who thrives underwater, H.B. joins Broom and other agents at a Manhattan museum where an immense monster is wreaking havoc. The monster, Sammael(Brian Steele), a well-nigh indestructible beast, resembles the love child of “Alien” and an octopus. Sammael and its spawn are controlled by the newly revived Rasputin.
Pointedly disdaining the current craze for wire work and martial artistry in movie mayhem, del Toro provides an abundance of two-fisted, straight-shooting action throughout “Hellboy.” Title character’s dust-ups with Sammael and other icky creeps are at once rousingly exciting and explosively funny, often playing like oversized smackdowns between WWE superstars.
However, del Toro isn’t always attentive to coherent transitions while warp-speeding through his storyline. Worse, he occasionally neglects to prepare uninitiated auds with context from the comic books.
Well-cast thesps generate rooting interest in their individual characters, thereby propelling plot momentum through sheer force of their colorful personalities. Del Toro provides nifty quirks and eccentricities for characters: Edgy relationship between Hellboy and Manning (well played by Tambor) builds toward amusing pay-off. Ultimately, on-screen actors (and unseen Pierce) prove to be pic’s most important special effects.
Perlman is terrifically boisterous and literally larger than life in title role, yet also elicits sympathy. In this, he is immeasurably aided by Hurt, who’s genuinely poignant in his relationship with Broom’s “son.”
Blair offers a career-best performance as Liz, conveying a wealth of mixed emotions with each wanly melancholy smile. Newcomer Rupert Evans is engagingly game as John Myers, a young FBI agent. Production designers and f/x supervisors are fantastically impressive in their rendering of del Toro’s darkly imaginative take on “Hellboy” mythos. Even throwaway items — such as a briefly glimpsed Spear of Longinus, the legendary weapon that pierced the crucified Christ — are vividly detailed. You don’t have to be a geek to appreciate the hard work and inspired choices of craftspeople who brought “Hellboy” into a new dimension, from page to screen.