The top-secret weapon at the top-secret Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense is named Hellboy. He’s a strong, red-hued man with horns (which he files down), a tail, and a huge right hand made of stone. He was found by the U.S. military in 1944, a byproduct of the Nazis’ failed attempt to open a portal that would unleash a set of hell-gods on the world. Now he helps the good guys anytime monsters attack.
Either you buy this or you don’t, and “Hellboy,” written and directed by Guillermo del Toro from the comic book by Mike Mignola, benefits from just the right attitude. It takes itself neither too seriously nor too lightly. It remembers it’s only a comic book, but it also remembers that even fanciful characters can feel “true” to an audience.
The greatest weapon in the film’s arsenal is Ron Perlman, who plays Hellboy as a wise-cracking over-grown adolescent. He is resigned to his fate as a freak, but he continues to pine for fellow misfit Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), who can make fires with her mind. He initiates and torments his new caretaker, young John Myers (Rupert Evans), who also has a crush on Liz, the way kids treat new babysitters. He sneaks out against the wishes of Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt), his surrogate father; when “Dad” comes home, Hellboy hides his cigar behind his back. And he taunts Dr. Manning (an amusingly wormy Jeffrey Tambor), who heads the facility and doesn’t like Hellboy.
Perlman is great fun to watch, and he helps the film achieve an emotional connection that most comic book movies do not have. We actually care about him and Liz, honest-to-goodness CARE about them.
The plot, I don’t care quite so much about. It is typical stuff involving a reptilian monster that can resurrect and reproduce itself endlessly, and the evil-doers who sponsor it, and it all culminates in an apocalyptic good-vs.-evil finale. The action scenes are well-staged, to be sure, bolstered as they are by Hellboy’s sardonicism and Del Toro’s sharp eye for exciting visuals; it’s the content itself that feels a little recycled.
As a whole, however, the film feels refreshingly different from its genre-mates. It has undertones of a Gothic romance — not unlike Perlman’s “Beauty and the Beast” TV series — and overtones of covert government operations and deadly supernatural menaces. It’s a bit darker than, say, “Spider-Man,” and it somehow manages not to seem as inherently silly as it really is. The ingredients may be ordinary, but the presentation — the tone, the flavor, the texture — is sublime.
B (2 hrs., 2 min.; )