Hellboy (2004) **½
Point number one: I’ve never read the comic book. In fact, I’ve never seen the comic book. For that matter, up until a couple of months ago, I was only dimly aware that the thing even existed. Even today, all I know about Hellboy the comic is that it is/was drawn by some guy named Mike Mignola, and that “Seeds of Destruction,” the story arc from which Hellboy the movie mostly derives, was written by John Byrne. (Didn’t he also write for The Uncanny X-Men, or some other such Marvel superhero drivel at one point?) All of which is really just a roundabout way of saying that I plan to stay out of the low-level controversy I’ve noticed in other reviews regarding whether or not the movie accurately captures the feel Mignola’s comic. Instead, I’m going to take Hellboy essentially at face value, as just the big, dumb action movie that it is.
Let me begin by pointing out, however, that Hellboy has an extraordinarily complex and involved storyline for a big, dumb action movie, so much so that it has to begin with a rather lengthy prologue sequence in order to lay the groundwork for it all. Way back in 1943, a special operations unit of the US Army is prowling around the Scottish countryside under the direction of a young English occultist called Bruttenholm— whose name, astonishingly enough, is pronounced “Broom.” Hey— as I’ve said before, the English can mispronounce anything. The idea here is that the Nazis have landed a commando team on Scottish territory in order to open up some kind of dimensional gate that will allow them to awaken the Seven Gods of Chaos from their slumber in a crystalline prison at the far end of the universe and summon them to Earth to wreak apocalyptic havoc. That ought to turn the tide against the Allies, huh? The American soldiers naturally scoff at the whole idea, but Bruttenholm is very worried. He only becomes more so when he and his men reach the site of the German operation, and discover that it is under the dual command of Karl Ruprecht von Kroenen (Ladislav Beran)— a high-ranking SS officer and the head of a Teutonic occult order called the Thule Society— and Grigori Rasputin (Karel Roden, from Blade II and Bulletproof Monk). And yes, that is indeed the same Grigori Rasputin who caused Czar Nicholas II so much trouble a generation before, though it would appear that he hasn’t aged a day since 1916, and he’s in great shape for a man who was poisoned, beaten, shot, stabbed, drowned, and castrated almost 30 years before. (We will later learn that this due to the symbiotic relationship that Rasputin has with some mollusk-y god-monster, who may or may not be one of those Seven Gods of Chaos he’s trying to bring to Earth.) Rasputin and company have quite a head start on Bruttenholm, and they open up their dimension door before the soldiers accompanying him can do anything about it. Even so, the Americans are quick enough on the draw that they are able to break up the party and destroy the machinery keeping the portal open before any giant, space-traveling demon-squids have a chance to come through. Rasputin himself is sucked through and destroyed when he tries to get the device working again. But after the shooting is over, Bruttenholm discovers that one demonic personage did indeed make it to Earth— a small, red-skinned creature with horns, a tail, and a gigantic stone hand, who looks not unlike an infant Satan. Against what ought to be his better judgement, Bruttenholm adopts the creature (which the soldiers appropriately christen “Hellboy”) and raises it as his own son.
Some 60 years later, Bruttenholm (now played by John Hurt, of Alien and The Ghoul) is an old man, but he still works for the US government’s top-secret Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. As Bruttenholm explains to John Myers (Rupert Evans), his awed new liaison from the FBI, there really are things that go bump in the night, and the BPRD is the agency charged with bumping back. Think of it as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” with a security clearance and a federal pension. The grown-up Hellboy (Ron Perlman, from Quest for Fire and The Ice Pirates), as you might imagine, is now one of the BPRD’s star agents— although his otherworldly appearance makes it necessary that he keep out of sight and see employment only on the most dangerous of missions. There have inevitably been sightings over the years, however, to the incalculable annoyance of BPRD chief Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor), who’d really like to see the agency’s membership limited strictly to the biologically human. Manning’s official position on said sightings is much the same as the official Air Force position on UFOs.
Be that as it may, Hellboy and his sometime partner, a psychic gill-man known as Abe Sapien (the body of monster-suit regular Doug Jones, from Tank Girl and The Time Machine, with the overdubbed voice of Wolf’s David Hyde Pierce), are soon to prove their indispensability yet again. Somebody has broken into a museum in Newark, New Jersey, and destroyed an ancient artifact which Sapien determines had been used to imprison the essence of a minor but powerful demon called Sammael, the Hound of Resurrection (among about a dozen other similarly impressive titles…). And what do you suppose Abe’s psychic gifts reveal to him about the identity of the perpetrators? Why yes— they were none other than K. R. von Kroenen and Rasputin’s SS-officer girlfriend, Ilse (Biddy Hodson), both of whom are as ageless as Rasputin had been when we saw him at the film’s beginning. Hellboy kills Sammael when the two of them meet a little while later, but they don’t call the demon “the Hound of Resurrection” for nothing. Worse still, Ilse turns out to have enhanced the creature’s enchantment in such a way that each time it is killed, it rises from the dead in two bodies instead of one. Factor in the little detail that Sammael is apparently also a self-fertilizing hermaphrodite capable of laying hundreds of eggs in a sitting, and you get big trouble for Hellboy and his colleagues. They might even have to bring in another ex-agent of the BPRD, a powerful pyrokinetic named Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) who resigned from the Bureau to check herself into a mental hospital some months ago.
Ilse and von Kroenen, meanwhile, head off to a hidden pagan shrine in the wilds of Siberia, where they do a little resurrecting of their own, bringing Rasputin back from the dead to take charge once again. Evidently he wasn’t trying to summon the Seven Gods of Chaos merely for Hitler’s sake; now that he’s back in town, Rasputin wants to move right ahead on his old project. And as if the BPRD didn’t have their hands sufficiently full already, it seems Hellboy’s arrival on Earth 60 years ago wasn’t quite the accident it appeared to be. Rasputin’s got big plans for him…
I said before that Hellboy is really just a big, dumb action movie. While I stand by that statement, I found it vastly more enjoyable than most such films (which I generally despise), primarily because there is quite a lot of more interesting stuff going on in the shadow of all the big, dumb action. The character of Hellboy has far greater depth to him than one usually encounters in modern-day action heroes, and Ron Perlman gives an excellent performance in the part, making Hellboy seem entirely real underneath all the latex prostheses. The relationship between him and Bruttenholm is believably familial, and Hellboy’s seemingly hopeless crush on Liz Sherman also rings true more often than not. Of equal importance, the villains arrayed against Hellboy and the rest of the BPRD are entertainingly colorful. My personal favorite is Ruprecht von Kroenen, who beneath his Darth Vader-like head-to-toe body armor turns out to be a human monster of the sort Clive Barker might have come up with back in his horror period, before all he wanted to write about was middle-aged homosexuals “finding themselves” in Los Angeles.
But what keeps Hellboy from transcending its genre is the fact that everything going on around Perlman is so hollow and underconceived. None of those impressively flashy villains have much to do apart from siccing packs of Sammaels on Hellboy and his allies, and none of the pieces of the story fit together right. Starting at the beginning, Rasputin’s efforts to bring the Seven Gods of Chaos to Earth are being conducted, at least initially, at Hitler’s instigation. Doesn’t it seem to you that the goals of conquering the world by force of arms and ending it with the aid of a club of evil gods are fundamentally incompatible with each other? Rasputin’s later activities have a similar internal inconsistency that makes a hash of the whole story. To wit: we eventually learn that Hellboy is literally the key to his plan. Well if that’s so, then would somebody like to explain to me why Rasputin and his agents spend the bulk of the film trying so hard to kill him? After all, he could hardly play his appointed role in Rasputin’s apocalypse if he were dead! And while you’re at it, I’d also appreciate it if you could fill me in on why Liz Sherman’s final solution to the Sammael question accomplishes anything beyond doubling their already considerable numbers yet again. Meanwhile, the BPRD seems awfully undermanned considering its supposed mission. Despite the huge-ass subterranean complex that houses it, it seems to employ nobody except Hellboy, Dr. Bruttenholm, Abe Sapien, and a handful of mostly useless human agents— hardly the sort of outfit I’d want handling the situation in the event of a looming supernatural holocaust!
Hellboy’s most puzzling defect has nothing to do with the story, however. Its most puzzling defect is the limpness of most of the big action set-pieces. After the first one (in which Hellboy must fight off the original monster while holding a box full of kittens in one hand), the numerous battles between Hellboy and the Sammaels are rather lifeless affairs, and look more like video game screenshots than scenes from a movie. The climactic struggle against the diabolical deity bonded to Rasputin, meanwhile, is an utter washout, over seemingly before it really gets started. It’s the kind of thing that would normally be fatal to an action flick; Hellboy survives it solely on the strength of its solid characterization and the acting skill of Ron Perlman.