Among a slew of mediocre 2004 films Hellboy stands out. It was able to successfully combine enough comic book spirit without making the film overwhelmingly comic book flat (like 1990's Dick Tracy. The feeling of the original was preserved as it brought gloriously gross depictions and fairly impressive cg, imagery to the screen. I think those who read the comic should be pleased enough with this entertaining portrayal.
Following a harrowing battle with culturally loaded Nazis, a baby demon is found among the fray. He is bright red with horns and a huge, rock-like, right hand. Instead of following the usual demon path of evil, he is taken in and raised by Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt), as a son and taught to fight for good. (Or, as the professor would say: "Bump back against those things that go bump in the night.") A flash-forward to the present shows a meek but talented FBI agent, John Myers (Rupert Evans), coming up to his new assignment at the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, which is disguised as a waste management facility of Newark, NJ. Here he meets the brilliant professor of the paranormal and his prodigy, the irascible yet charming, now grown-up, demon-hero Hellboy (Ron Perlman). Myers and Hellboy are quickly put to the test as they battle a resurrected demon Samael, and his summoner and Nazi-demonlord, Grigori Rasputin (Karel Roden). Other beasties and baddies encumber their progress including a masochistic and self-mutilating former Nazi knife fighter, huge demon gods, and even the antagonistic, fellow Agent Dr. Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor). Manning acts as PR specialist with numerous television appearances designed to make sure the public believes Hellboy is just a myth. Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) is another distraction, as the pretty and troubled firestarter girl who has recently left the Bureau for the comfort of normal life in a minimum security mental ward. Which man, Hellboy or Myers, will win her is continually in dispute.
The extremely versatile Ron Perlman brings Hellboy to life with an inescapable candor and wit. The older actor has absolutely no trouble portraying young, headstrong, lovestruck, and invariably very human demon. His need to fit in is felt urgently through both his interactions with the Professor, whom he looks to as a father, and his perverse need to sheer his horns until there are merely flat nubs on his forehead. As sadly genuine as he is, he is also funny. Constantly biting his short, signature cigar, and cracking jokes at the most inopportune times, Hellboy is the charming rascal you hate to love as much as you do. Selma Blair, too, comes alive with the blue flame of her outwardly calm, inwardly seething personality. Her sadness and apathy come through when she comments that men, whether red or white, are equally unreliable and without use for her. Blair's calm and subtle beauty, masked by dark, unruly hair frame her well as the troubled pyrokinetic. And when she finally does burst into flame, she is both powerful and beautiful, even within her normally, sullen and reticent figure. Despite these ringing endorsements of the characters, however, I was left wanting more of their history and backgrounds. When reading the comic books, I'm sure more personal history and character development sneak in every issue until you feel you really know them intimately. There just wasn't that kind of time here (despite a 132 min running time). And this was sorely missed.
But I was swept up into the adventure story without any character development meanderings during the action. Costuming for the Nazi puppet baddie Kroenen was frighteningly superb. His outer plain black mask and blades that shot from his forearms were pretty good, but the real treat was the disfigured and self-mutilated body underneath the Dark Vader attire. Hellboy's own exquisitely intense red skin gave the screen vibrancy. In the final scenes this red contrasted vividly with a wide array of blues of blood and flame. Even the scenes of black were beautiful, with Hellboy's or Liz's brightness, or even Myer's pale white, outlined starkly against the dark backgrounds. And though it didn't seem as if the computer graphics were wowing enough to win any awards, the monsters were creative and I especially liked the scene near the beginning of the film, where Rasputin's body is, in round globs of flesh, sucked into another dimension.
While I'm sure the devoted fans of the Hellboy series will be debating the merits of the film version for ages, Hellboy should be enjoyable to a variety of moviegoers. It's an action flick that keeps you engaged in the fight and chase scenes while still remaining smart, funny and as touchingly real as any psychic demon melodrama can be.