Ron Perlman is an odd-looking fellow. He's the guy the with the long face and forceful jaw you might have seen in movies like "City of Lost Children" or "Blade II." He was the Beast on TV's "Beauty and the Beast." Perlman is the kind of character actor who doesn't ever get the chance to flex his acting muscles and carry an entire film. Heroes don't traditionally look the way he looks.
Of course, along with Perlman's already otherworldly facial features, this hero happens to be bright red, sports a tail, and has to shear down the horns that continue to grow on his head every day with an electric saw.
Hellboy is the unusual creation of comic writer/illustrator Mike Mignola, and has been brought to the screen with much of the same visual flair as the comic book by director Guillermo Del Toro ("The Devil's Backbone," "Blade II"). Mignola had a lot of input on the film, and it shows. Some of the shots seem to be ripped right from the pages of the book. And, while the stuations in the convoluted movie plot differ from the original story line, the comic's characters are kept relatively intact.
And that is the reason that "Hellboy" works.
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.
The special effects are amazing, the set design is fantastically detailed, and the movie's overall look is one-of-a-kind. Kudos to Del Toro for mixing his CGI effects seamlessly with real shots, and not resorting to them for everything.
But it is the mix of oddball creatures and people in "Hellboy" that keep the film interesting. There's Abe Sapien (Doug Jones, voiced by David Hyde Pierce), a wise fish-man hybrid named for his birthday, the actual day President Lincoln was shot. Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), the pyrotechnic girl who starts fires when her emotions overtake her, is also Hellboy's unattainable love obsession. Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt) is the father Hellboy never had, the man who rescued him after being summoned forth by Nazis during World War II, and then brought him into the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense.
And then there is Hellboy. As expertly played by Perlman, even with tons of make-up and prostheteics, our hero is a good 'monster' whose origin haunts him to the bone. He's technically sixty years old, but physically, he's got the body of a twenty-six year old. Perlman makes this ridiculous sounding conflict seem real, even with the limitations his make-up create. A sucker for kittens, Hellboy is a bit of a softie. Despite the fact that he was born of the flames of Hell and created to one day destroy the world, he harbors an enormous crush on Liz. He loves his father figure (the Prof) dearly, and has not yet resigned himself to the inevitable lonely life that a freak such as him must lead.
As Hellboy struggles with his existensial identity crisis, a rickety plot involving the famed mad monk Rasputin slowly and confusingly evolves. It is precisely this mix of history, mysticism, magic and monsters that makes the story an interesting one. Unfortunately, the movie sometimes makes too much of this supernatural turmoil seem like extra baggage between fight scenes. Granted, the fight scenes are incredibly staged and the effects are quite convincing. It is just a shame that Del Toro couldn't have devoted more time to the suspense elements of the film.
The more fantastical ideas in "Hellboy" are perfectly rendered, however, and grounding the movie's main characters in their own reality was a smart move. Casting Perlman as the unlikely lead was even better one. The comic does an excellent job of blending historical legend around the Bureau's fictional adventures. Now that we are familiar with the world of "Hellboy" and its strange inhabitants, maybe we'll see a more intriguing plot in its sequel.