Hellboy, a movie I caught up with only

under threat of sequel, turns out to play exactly toward

director Guillermo del Toro’s strengths — it’s a sprawling fantasy story brimming with

dark whimsy, and realized through an intense visual imagination. Ron

Perlman is Hellboy, as far as I can tell a kind of domesticated demon

who was brought into our world during World War II by some especially

evil immortal Nazis seeking to catalyze the end of the world. But a

funny thing happened on the way to the Apocalypse, and Hellboy ends

up as part of a secret supernatural task force (based, hilariously, in Newark), having been aised by a British egghead who taught him to fight against

the powers of darkness instead of leading them to victory. It’s your

classic nature-versus-nurture situation, and it’s given Hellboy a bit

of an identity crisis – he keeps his frightening red horns filed

down to stony nubs, a personal-grooming metaphor of the type that

flows naturally out of the character’s comic-book origins. Ostensibly

it’s a way to make his imposing figure less terrifying, but you

quickly get the feeling that it is really a way for him to keep reminding

himself that he’s one of the good guys.

Of course, he has an entourage. There’s

Abe Sapien, the submersible smarty-pants fish-man. There’s John Myers (Rupert Evans),

the fresh-faced FBI agent who’s been assigned as Hellboy’s new

minder/chaperone. (The government denies the existence of Hellboy, who works undercover for a ghostbusting agency that tracks down and eradicates evil from our world.) And there’s Liz, a pyrokinetic basket case that

Hellboy’s in love with. Near the beginning of the film, his adoptive

father learns that his cancer case is terminal — and so this becomes not

just a typical origin story, but also an effective coming-of-age

fable about a powerful, cynical, sometimes frightening being who must

decide whether he’s more man or monster.

In important ways, this is probably del

Toro’s best work to date. I’ve been seeing his films since Cronos

opened in New York, and I’ve never been able to connect with this

guy’s sensibility. The prodigiousness of his creations has generally

been undermined by what I can only describe as an overtly deliberate

elegance that reads to me as ungainliness – for every wickedly

potent invention, there’s another prepackaged plot twist from the

genre factory; for every incisive stroke, a too-obvious stretch for

meaning. Pan’s Labyrinth drove me especially crazy, with its mix of

world-class fairy-tale menace and turgid, self-serious melodrama. But

this one I like. Hellboy is del Toro’s perfect foil — an awkward

poet drawn with big, thick lines, pulled by powerful forces toward

the darkness, his big heart matched only by his massive,

too-imprecise red right hand. It’s probably Ron Perlman’s best work,

too — his immutably gruff demeanor here is a swaggering mixture of

Snake Plissken, Tom Waits, and The Thing at clobberin’ time.

What’s available on Blu-ray Disc is the more-than-two-hour

“director’s cut.” The picture is beautiful, and the frequent

low-frequency rumbles soundtrack had me scrambling for the “night

mode” buttons on my remote control. A cursory Google search doesn’t

reveal much in detail about the differences between this and the

original theatrical release. (It’s unrated, but it reads as a pretty

easy PG-13 to me.) Apparently the differences are in character

development, especially regarding Myers’ relationship with Liz, an easy,

friendly one that sends Hellboy over the edge at a bad time. It makes sense from the standpoint of plot, but it’s also a good example of what the cutting-room floor is made for:

Meyers is one of the blandest characters ever to populate the margins

of a superhero movie. Some other details aren’t particularly interestingly developed. Beyond some early scenes depicting tabloid headlines and fuzzy images of Hellboy himself captured with all the clarity of a Sasquatch film, Del Toro never has much fun with his secret-agent status.The bad guys — Nazi

leftovers Rasputin and Ilsa — are the most banal of evil

characters, and the film’s climax, which involves Hellboy beating the

crap out of the largest in a long series of sea monsters, is pretty


But Hellboy shines in the creepy

details – the glimpses of the face of that scrawny dude made of

sand who surgically removed his own lips and eyelids, the grim

aftermath of an all-out monster mash at an antiquities museum, or the

bleakly envisioned end-of-the-world landscape that sees a

fully-horned Hellboy lording it over a scorched earth attended by

giant floating squids. And del Toro has a natural inclination toward CG animation, keeping it in the same formal mode as the live action. Buoyed by an

occasional urge toward gallows humor, it’s solid stuff, and some

stretches of it are outstanding. I’ll be saying hello to Hellboy again this weekend. B

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