It seems that among the current glut of superhero movies that have dominated American cinema over the last decade, the ones that stand out are the ones with the most personality and were guided from behind the camera by directors with a specific vision and/or an intimate understanding of what these universes/characters bring to the table. You can look at Bryan Singer’s first two X-Men movies and obviously Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy are at the top of the heap, but another movie that stands out among the now predictable odes to empowered people who blow things up real good to stop the crazier super-powered people is “Hellboy,” directed by the crazed genius of macabre Guillermo Del Toro, with his regular personification of the strange and darkly comic Ron Perlman playing the cigar-chomping, kitten-loving, blood red demon who fights to protect a world he will never be fully part of.
According to a prologue that proves the Nazis learned nothing from the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” they along with Rasputin (Karel Roden) tried to open a portal to a dimension to unleash horrible beasts to bring chaos to our realm. Their plan is foiled by their own arrogance, but a baby demon with horns, a tail and a right hand made of stone sneaked through, winding up in the care of paranormal scientist Trever Broom (John Hurt), who would groom this demon into “Hellboy,” protector of the world from all things supernatural.
Hellboy is part of a team commissioned by the FBI (represented by Jeffrey Tambor), which also consists of Abe Sapien (played in costume by Doug Jones and voiced by David Hyde Pierce), an intellectual half-man/half-fish, and we find “Red” pining over Liz (Selma Blair), a troubled soul who has the unfortunate tendency to create uncontrollable fires with her mind. And then there is Hellboy himself. He files down his horns to “fit in” but it might be to remove any reminders of his insidious origins. He consumes vats of chili and mountains of pancakes everyday, and he’s frustrated that Broom keeps him cut off from the world he’s supposed to be protecting. Perlman, the great character actor with a mug that looks like the unfinished fifth face of Mount Rushmore, was born for this role. He nails the dry humor, the graceful yet imposing physical presence, the sinister undertones that come with being, you know, hellspawn.
This character, taken from the comic book series by Mike Mignola, fits Del Toro’s auteur sensibilities perfectly. He has blast orchestrating these battles with otherworldly monsters (in this case, ones that look like the spawn of Cerberus and Predator who can resurrect themselves) with twisted glee. It’s funny but tinged with the director’s trademark macabre tendencies. When “Hellboy” is allowed to be strange, and the character is allowed to do this thing and interact with his equally freakish comrades (Rick Baker’s reliably amazing make-up work needs to be mentioned), the movie is a welcome outlier amid the more predictable fare this genre usually traffics in.
Unfortunately, “Hellboy” stumbles when it toes the water of conventionality, which comes in the form of John Meyers (Rupert Evans), the rookie FBI agent who for reasons that are never explained has come to observe Hellboy and the team. This guy is a harbinger of bland, given scene after scene of him gaping in awe at Hellboy’s behavior. Part of the mystique of Hellboy’s character is that even though he’s a demon he acts like a regular human being a lot of the time. Having Evans, who sets a land-speed record in being uninteresting, remark on everything this character does is counterproductive to what makes him interesting. This movie thrives on its own fervent imagination, so having Meyers play such a substantial role feels unnecessary, and it stalls the narrative momentum whenever he is on-screen. It doesn’t help that a love triangle forms with him, Hellboy and Liz (Blair is a blank slate as well) that doesn’t work at all, shuffling even more cliches into this film’s stacked deck (Evans is so wooden that a relationship with a woman who can create fire would put a dent in his life expectancy). Also, the villains are straight out of Eastern European central casting, not giving nearly enough menace to justify their threat in this movie.
But these shortcomings don’t sink “Hellboy.” Perlman is so compelling as this character and Del Toro adds more than enough style and verve to compensate. His cinematographer Guillermo Navarro creates some amazing imagery, using Hellboy’s bright red skin as a contrast to snowy Russian fortresses, flame-consumed landscapes, etc. “Hellboy” the movie works in the same way it’s protagonist does: on its own terms, unshackled by the rules, letting its demon flag fly.