Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Hellboy

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

HELLBOY

5/10

USA 2004 : Guillermo DEL TORO : 125 mins (various sources also give 112 and 122 mins)

H P Lovecraft meets the X-Men with disappointing results in Hellboy, yet another picture from the perpetually-overpraised Del Toro which – like Mimic, The Devil’s Backbone and Blade IIlooks promising on paper, delivers a few nifty sequences, attracts decent reviews and draws some fervent admirers… but ultimately somehow fails to satisfy.

Staying firmly in the horror-tinged bad-ass-postmodern-superhero realm of Blade II, the Mexican writer-director now adapts Mike Mignola’s acclaimed ‘Dark Horse’ comic-book series – which is chiefly noted for its audacious, predominantly black-and-red colour scheme. Despite advance word to the contrary, the Hellboy movie doesn’t really bother to transfer this crimson-chiaroscuro effect to the big screen. In fact, there isn’t a great deal of visual flair in Guillermo Navarro’s cinematography at all, apart from one fleeting vision of doomsday which has a certain gotterdammerung grandeur. Even this, however, is clumsily undercut by Del Toro’s decision to include in the shot an entirely gratuitous (and, on reflection, wholly absurd) newspaper bearing a front page headlined ‘THE APOCALYPSE!”

This isn’t the only problematic faked-up newspaper in Hellboy – it’s staggering that, on a budget of $66m, Del Toro settles for mock-ups as glaringly phoney as the ones deployed so prominently behind the opening credits. They’re lazy shorthand intended to educate non-initiates about Hellboy’s complex back-story, and to bridge the gap between the wartime prologue and the present-day main action.

Exposition is somewhat cumbersome throughout – and many details are left vague – but in a nutshell our hero (Ron Perlman) is an outsize humanoid demon sporting bright red skin, horns (filed down) and tail. The 1944 prologue – set in Scotland, of all places – sees an infant Hellboy inadvertently summoned ‘from beyond’ by Nazis in cahoots with an apparently immortal Rasputin (Karel Roden). But when the evildoers’ plans go awry the tiny imp is (implausibly) adopted and guided to the path of virtue by Professor Broom (Kevin Trainor, later John Hurt) – a Brit working for the American ‘Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense.’

Sixty years later, Hellboy faces his stiffest test when Rasputin suddenly returns from the (un)dead to wreak further havoc – aided by Nazi assassin Kroenen (Ladislav Beran), SS bombshell Ilsa (Bridget Hodson) and a self-replicating hellhound-monster-thingy known as Sammael, the Desolate One (Brian Steele). Hellboy is aided by brainbox amphibioan Abe Sapien (Doug Jones, voice by an uncredited David Hyde Pierce), while further assistance/distraction is provided by Hellboy’s ‘pyrokinetic’ on-off girlfriend Liz (Selma Blair). The audience’s bemused surrogate is wet-behind-the-ears FBI agent John Myers (Rupert Manning) – presumably intended as a ‘normal’ non-freaky hero with whom we can identify, but decidedly (and literally) colourless alongside such a grotesque gallery of heroes and villains.

Despite a cacophony of mucho-macho sound and fury along the way, Hellboy is a consistently laborious couple of rather long hours for the audience. It doesn’t help that Hellboy himself, despite the best efforts of the extremely talented Perlman, always looks like a big bloke dressed up in a red rubber suit – and his wisecracking, cigar-chomping, baritone-voiced, hard-boiled persona adheres too closely to the established tough-guy lineage of Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis, Vin Diesel and co. His romance with the underutilised Liz never really (ahem) catches fire, while Del Toro’s script (story co-written with Peter Briggs) is content to confine him to a repetitive series of hand-to-tentacle skirmishes against the various Sammaels.

Only at the end, when Hellboy’s original diabolic purpose is revealed, do things slightly pick up – and even this has been done better before: John Carpenter made the whole ‘reaching into an alternative universe to bring forth Satan’ seem much creepier back in 1988’s Prince of Darkness, albeit on a much less grandiose scale. We then get a final Hellboy-vs-beastie showdown featuring a squid-kraken gargantuan – seemingly one of Lovecraft’s ‘Old Ones’ – who looks suspiciously like the Big Monster out of Stephen Sommers’ Deep Rising. We see said creature burst out of a Rasputin – a real-life historical figure which Hollywood for some reason can’t resist portraying as being in league with the devil. Viewers of 1997’s bizarre animated Anastasia may remember that this link was supposedly the inspiration for the ‘Mad Monk’ to foment the Bolshevik Revolution, no less. This time, his plans are even more ambitious – namely, the end of the world: Boney M’s lament “It was a shame how he carried on” doesn’t quite cover it.

2nd September, 2004
(seen 31st August : Odeon, Newcastle-upon-Tyne : press show)

click HERE for a second opinion on Hellboy

by Neil Young