by Joe Steiff
Guillermo Del Toro and Ron Perlman bring Mignola’s cult fave comic book to life on the big screen.
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Somewhere along the line, comic books became the moral center of the universe. No, really. Granted, I have a fairly limited view here, having by no means seen every film released in the past month much less the last year or decade. Nor have I read or am even aware of every graphic novel or comic published in that same time period. But it seems to me that as film stories have become more and more “complex” (i.e., morally ambiguous)—The Passion included—graphic novels and comics have become one of the last venues where morally straightforward themes are unabashedly explored. Case in point: Hellboy, Guillermo del Toro’s latest outing as screenwriter/director.
Probably best known to American audiences as the director of Blade II, Mexican-born del Toro has made several memorable films (1993’s Cronos, 1997’s Mimic and more importantly, 2001’s The Devil’s Backbone) over the years. His venture into adaptations of graphic novels continues with Hellboy, based on Mike Mignola’s comic and sharing a screen story credit with Peter Briggs (who has story credits on the upcoming Highlander and Alien vs. Predator movies).
Visually and narratively reminiscent of both good comic-based films (X-Men) as well as bad (League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen), Hellboy explores the question of nature versus nurture. Dubbed Hellboy upon his arrival from a demon-dimension during a Nazi experiment gone wrong near the end of World War II, the story’s namesake grows up to be one of a small number of freaks who help protect the world from “things that go bump in the night.” As characterized by Ron Perlman, Hellboy is a man struggling to mature as much as he is to understand his place in the world. Strewn along the wayside of this consideration are questions that are more hinted at than explored, such as whether one’s life is fated, and if so, can one do anything to change that fate. Even ignoring the subtexts about adoption, before it’s over, Hellboy is pulled between two fathers, loses the woman he loves and has to make a choice.
Perlman is pretty good as the troubled overgrown adolescent, and Rupert Evans (as John Myers) does okay with the role of stranger-in-a-strange-land who provides the audience’s point of view into the freakish world of the story. Doug Jones as Abe Sapien sounds so much like Niles Crane that it’s hard to ever take him quite seriously, despite being fun to watch and listen to, but it’s Selma Blair who seems to be treading water here. Not a memorable role for her. Okay, maybe she has the depressed “just leave me alone” persona down, but it’s hard to understand why Hellboy much less Myers would be so enamored of her to create the perfunctory love-triangle.
And when did octopi or squid-like creatures become the new creepy monster? I guess it plays into that whole snake thing, and for a moment, I thought there might be something interesting made of the Medusa possibility, but ultimately, all the monsters here look alike with no real purpose. Granted, this made for a very queasy uneasiness in the apocalyptic flash-forward of the world to come (with giant tentacles dipping down from the bottoms of clouds), but the singular view of those pesky bad demons got a bit old. The only demon development seemed to be, first, more, and then later, bigger. This may be part of the reason that the battles began to feel a bit repetitive and the monsters not the stuff of nightmares.
With all of that said, the action sequences are well filmed (if a bit truncated at times), making it a fun movie for an afternoon’s diversion. The fact that it actually has a theme and a message makes it head and shoulders (pun intended) above most of the films out there. And finally, this is a movie that seems less concerned about setting up a sequel than bringing the film on the screen in front of us to a conclusion. In this day and age, and with this type of film, that seems a brave risk, and it makes me want to reward the producers and creative team behind this film. So go see this movie!
Joe Steiff watches movies in Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio and California and has yet to find a film-viewing experience in recent years devoid of cell phones and chatter. If you’re not there to see the movie, stay home. Oh wait, did that sound too grouchy?
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