Friday, April 2, 2004
Comic books and graphic novels are being tailored for the big screen in record numbers. But for every "Road to Perdition" there is a "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen."
In other words, for every skillful interpretation there is one that merely exploits the premise as a means to unleash another disposable blockbuster.
"Hellboy," the adaptation of Mike Mignola's successful cult series, falls somewhere between these ends of the spectrum. Portions of the movie capture the spirit of the clever source material, yet, as with "League," it eventually becomes another generic action flick bogged down by the weight of its CGI effects. The result is not terrible, just surprisingly uninvolving.
Don't blame Ron Perlman, however.
As the titular lead, the 54-year-old character actor is the element that makes the story periodically interesting. Perlman is no stranger to performing while encased in identity-obscuring makeup -- he was a multiple Emmy nominee for his work in the 1980s TV series "Beauty and the Beast." While big-name stars such as Vin Diesel and The Rock were considered for the role of Hellboy, it's hard to envision them being able to bring such layers of humanity to the part.
Although Hellboy himself is a towering red demon with horns (which he files "to fit in" to society), an oversized stone hand and a "rumpy tail," he is, deep down, just a blue-collar guy. Only instead of hauling around refrigerators, his job is to slay monsters for a shadowy government agency.
Backtracking a bit, the film begins with a drawn-out sequence that reveals the hero's origin.
Hellboy is first summoned near the end of World War II by the mad monk Rasputin (Karel Roden) who allies himself with the Nazi's occult division. When American troops bust up one of Rasputin's evil gatherings in mid-ceremony, they discover the villain has opened a portal long enough for an impish demon-like thing to come through.
The soldiers dub the creature Hellboy, and he is raised by adoptive father Trevor Bruttenholm (John Hurt) to be one of the key forces within the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. While an adult, the muscular Hellboy again runs afoul of Rasputin and his remaining Nazi allies, who seek to involve the hero in a scheme that could trigger the apocalypse.
If "Hellboy" had dwelt more on its Average Joe themes, it might have been a wonderful revision of the whole superhero milieu. The film's best moments are its quietest ones, whether Hellboy is trying to reconcile with his pyrokinetic girlfriend Liz (Selma Blair) or simply sharing a cigar with the smug FBI official (Jeffrey Tambor) who's his nominal boss.
Actor Ron Perlman does a terrific job injecting some humanity into the titular hero, a horned red demon who thwarts monsters for a shadowy government agency. Unfortunately, Hellboy's blue-collar persona is soon engulfed by the filmmakers' reliance on familiar CGI effects, which further drag down the already flimsy plot.
Instead, director/screenwriter Guillermo del Toro ("Mimic") all but abandons these subtleties for senses-dulling excess. The film indulges in one elaborately unnecessary set piece after another in which dozens of computer-generated creatures fight and fight and fight with the horned hero.
There are plenty of weirdo villains in "Hellboy" -- including a spooky, zombified Nazi assassin (Ladislav Beran) -- yet the ones that eventually take up the most screen time are those that have the least amount of personality. By the end of the film, when Hellboy is duking it out with a Lovecraftian beast of the multi-tentacled variety, the scenes are no different than those in dozens of its predecessors, from "Deep Rising" to the Mines of Moria sequence in "The Fellowship of the Ring."
The cabalistic film already has difficulty getting the audience to connect with the events happening on the screen. Hellboy is a sympathetic character, but this particular adventure of his becomes tedious, arbitrary and familiar.
Aren't there enough supernatural action movies that hinge on trying to stop the bad guys from completing a ritual that will bring about the end of the world?
At one point a character advises, "We like people for their virtues but love them for their defects."
If that's the case, then there is plenty to "love" about "Hellboy."