THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Hellboy is yet another movie based on a comic book hero, in this case one created by Mike Mignola for Dark Horse Comics. Like all good comics-to-film adaptations, we start off learning the origin of the central character. The year is 1944. The Nazis are testing a new machine that, if successful, will unleash the so-called Seven Gods of Chaos. These hellish beings have sworn to extinguish the heavens, or something like that, we are told. Just as the process starts to work, the Allies storm in and blow the machine to bits. A single demon crosses over, however. The tiny creature - which looks like a little boy, save for the red skin and horns – is adopted and nurtured like a son by Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt).

Decades later, Bruttenholm runs a shadowy government organization called the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD) that investigates paranormal activity and hides it from the public. As he explains it: “There are things out there that go bump in the night. We’re the ones who bump back.” The now-grown demon, Hellboy (Ron Perlman), cuts a striking figure. He’s tall and muscular. His horns have been filed down “so that he can fit in.” One hand is normal; the other is giant and made of stone. Hellboy’s job in the organization is to eliminate any paranormal or otherworldly creature the BPRD finds. However, when we first meet him he’s been grounded by Bruttenholm for sneaking out of the compound. (Apparently, Hellboy has achieved something of a Bigfoot-style myth, so withholding his existence is in the government’s best interest.)

Hellboy is let out of his room when duty calls. During the incident in 1944, the Nazi who was working on the machine, Grigory Rasputin (Karel Roden), was sucked through some kind of mystical portal. In the current day, two fellow Nazis perform a ceremony that revives him. Together, they set out on their quest to unleash evil forces. Bruttenholm sends Hellboy out to stop them. Assisting him are other members of the BPRD, including a mer-man named Abe Sapien and a FBI agent named John Myers (Rupert Evans). Also climbing on board, somewhat reluctantly, is pyro-kinetic Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), who left the group for a while to live in a mental institution. Liz bursts into flames whenever she gets mad; her hospitalization was an attempt to get this freak ability under control. Hellboy and Liz have a romantic past, which leads to some scenes that are surprisingly tender for this genre.

The things that are good in Hellboy are really good. Parts of this movie were thrilling to watch because they were fresh and original, starting with the characters. Hellboy is visually interesting, but he’s also a compelling persona. The guy isn’t just a muscular superhero. He’s got a multi-dimensional personality. At times he plays the part of the no-nonsense strongman, yet we also see his more tender, romantic side in his interactions with Liz. Underneath all the muscles lies a broken heart. There’s a sarcastic side to him as well. Hellboy has a way of unleashing a well-timed zinger to anyone he feels deserves one. His common catchphrase (“Aw crap!”), which he delivers at the first sign of trouble, is refreshingly un-macho for a superhero. It’s also symbolic of the film’s humor, which is delightfully off-center for a comic book movie. The other characters are equally quirky/intriguing. I’m somewhat fond of the mer-man Abe Sapien, who looks like the Creature from the Black Lagoon’s more sensitive younger brother. He intuits things, such as paranormal activity, and sports a nifty pair of black goggles to boot.

The whole style of the movie is wonderfully fun. Director Guillermo del Toro (Blade 2, Mimic) has a knack for envisioning unusual worlds and places. He gives Hellboy a look that is distinctive. A lot of movies use computer-generated effects, but I sometimes get a sense of déjà vu; it’s like the same effects keep popping up in different films. This one uses CGI, yet it never really looks like anything I’ve ever seen before. The director and his crew are bold in their choices for makeup, CGI effects, and set design. There’s much creativity on display here, which helps us to more fully immerse ourselves in the film. I felt genuinely excited to see a picture that tried to show me something new. One of the great pleasures of modern moviegoing is that technology allows filmmakers to realistically create worlds that don’t exist. The world created in Hellboy seems to reveal something clever at every turn. Because it is so unique, the characters (also unique) inhabit the world perfectly. My suspicion is that this movie might appeal to people who think they don’t like comic book movies.

There’s much wonderful material here, but there are also two flaws. The first is that the movie needs a much more charismatic villain. The bad guy is kind of dull, except for his expertise at wielding the swords that pop out of his sleeves during combat. A good superhero needs a good villain; Batman had the Joker, Spider-man had the Green Goblin, Daredevil had Bullseye. The villain in Hellboy isn’t all that intimidating. We never really sense his evil. Similarly, the story is not as strong as I would have liked. The origin sequence that opens the picture works well, but once the plot moves to modern day it loses focus. I admittedly had some difficulty understanding exactly what was going on at certain points, which lessens the tension and excitement at times. (I had to consult the movie’s official website just to be able to accurately write the plot description you read above.) These two flaws keep Hellboy from reaching the level of Sam Raimi’s Spider-man adaptation or either of the X-Men pictures. That said, they should be easy to fix for the sequel…and I do hope that there’s a sequel.

Although I enjoy comic book heroes, I have never read anything in the Hellboy series. I’ve always been too busy with Batman, the X-Men, or Spiderman to give him a try. Perhaps the best compliment I can pay Hellboy the movie is to say that I may have found a new superhero to add to my list of favorites, and I plan to go out and get some of the comics.

( out of four)

Hellboy is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and frightening images. The running time is 2 hours.

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