I am absolutely in love with the character of Hellboy (Ron Perlman). Judging from the way he films him, so is director Guillermo del Toro. On the other hand, I am not at all in love with the mystical mumbo jumbo wrapped around this movie to serve as a story. Perhaps it was necessary in order to stay true to the character’s origins, but I wish they’d found a more believable way to get viewers interested.
Adapted from the comic by Mike Mignola, Hellboy is the story of a demon turned superhero. Raised by kindly Professor Brutteholm (John Hurt), Hellboy lives in and works for the Bureau for Paranormal Research. When things go bump in the night, they’re the guys who “bump back”. The story itself is a lot of occult mysticism, spouted from characters in much the same way techno-babble is spewed across the bridge of the most recent incarnations of the starship Enterprise. The result is a struggle against evil that is not only confusing, but uninvolving. The fight scenes, except for Hellboy’s hilarious running commentary, are bland, the effects middle of the road, and the number of tentacles flailing about is beyond excessive. The villains are ridiculous, unbelievable, and often mindless. Only pre-existing comic devotees are likely to have even the slightest notion of what is actually going on, because del Toro really doesn’t have the wherewithal to explain it.
What you will know for certain is that as usual, it’s all blamed on the Nazis. Back in 1944, they were the guys who brought Hellboy here in the first place. Now they’re back and looking to stir up trouble in the form of an Apocalypse, using really powerful tentacles. Hellboy, along with his paranormal partners are supposed to stop them using his ever reliable right fist of doom and some poorly explained mystiscm. On Hellboy’s team is Abe Sapien, a fishlike being gifted with psychic sensitivity, and Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), an outwardly normal young woman with a tendency to spontaneously combust.
Whatever. None of that matters, because what makes Hellboy great is Perlman’s take on the character and del Toro’s obvious love of him. Hellboy is a charismatic masterpiece, growling across the screen spouting memorable one-liners and pining for the love of fellow freak Liz Sherman. He’s a deep and beautiful character, made only more so by how comfortable Perlman is playing him. Underneath all those heavy prosthetics Ron creates something truly unique… a living breathing monster who seems at his weakest moments more human than any of the “normal” people stomping about in del Toro’s world. It’s impossible not to adore him. Hellboy is an instantly iconic figure, his demonic visage providing ready-made art upon which del Toro can feast his camera. His sense of humor drives the film, his struggle with his individuality carries it, and Guillermo’s obsession makes him look unforgettable.
As a result, the film hits its stride in all the moments where del Toro forgets about his silly hocus-pocus Apocalypse and lets his heroes interact and grow. Hellboy’s longing for affection, his friendship with Abe Sapien, Liz Sherman’s struggle to become normal, the Professor's love of his demon-like son, that’s the real point of this film. The things you’ll remember most are little details like Hellboy’s love of kittens, not the way he fought a tentacle. Del Toro’s save the world plot is just filler that should have been cleaned up and straightened out. It wasn’t, probably in the name of staying faithful. The result is an extremely enjoyable experience that could have been even better had Big Red been given a more involving adventure.