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Hellboy

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  • Noel Vera
    A devilishly good time Noel Vera The opening sequence of Guillermo del Toro s Hellboy promises much: windswept Scottish island, fanatic Nazi soldiers, retro-
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 30, 2004
      A devilishly good time

      Noel Vera

      The opening sequence of Guillermo del Toro's "Hellboy" promises
      much: windswept Scottish island, fanatic Nazi soldiers, retro-
      scientific apparatus, occult incantations performed by
      legendary "mad monk" Grigori Rasputin (Karel Roden). A freakish Nazi
      assassin named Kroenen (Ladislav Beran) makes woo with Ilsa, a
      beautiful she-wolf (Biddy Hodson, presumably playing a tribute to
      the cult classic); a crack Allied commando contingent follows the
      lead of geeky scientist "Broom" Bruttenholm (John Hurt under all
      that waterproof makeup); a hole in the fabric of the universe is
      opened, and through it something is glimpsed--something huge and
      frozen, with pitiless eyes and enormous tentacles, poised to step
      through the hole and conquer the planet. The hole closes
      prematurely, but something far smaller does pass through--a candy-
      red baby with horns and tail. The Allied soldiers lure it forward
      with a Babe Ruth bar and adopt it as a mascot.

      The rest of the plot as follows: Rasputin, along with Nazi freak
      Kroenen and she-wolf Ilsa, reappear years later to liberate
      hellhounds from ancient statues and again try call down one of the
      Cthulhu gods to wreak havoc with the world; meanwhile HB (as the
      eponymous character, now played by Ron Perlman, is called) works for
      a supersecret branch of the FBI (presumably solving cases the X-
      Files couldn't handle) along with sentient fish-man Abe Sapiens
      (Doug Jones under heavy makeup, David Hyde Pierce supplying the
      voice), both under the spikily unenthusiastic leadership of Dr. Tom
      Manning (Jeffrey Tambor, missed after all this time). HB is
      generally happy with his job and his daily ration of giant Babe Ruth
      bars, skyscraping stacks of pancake, and cauldrons of bubbling
      chili, only he can't resolve his feelings for fellow colleague and
      beautiful pyrokinetic Liz Sherman (Selma Blair); matters aren't
      helped by the entrance of John Myers (Rupert Evans), a rookie agent
      assigned to baby-sit HB who ends up falling for Liz along the way.

      If the outline sounds like "As The World Turns Apocalyptic," the mix
      just might be intentional on the part of del Toro and Mike Mignola
      (the character's comic-book creator); as with Sam
      Raimi's "Spiderman" we have a combination of soap melodrama and
      superhero heroics, only in this case the hero is an invulnerable
      transdimensional demon, the villains conspire to bring about nothing
      less than the End of the World; and there is an overall sense here
      that the melodrama is meant to contribute to the general effect, and
      that we aren't to take it any more seriously than the pulpier
      elements. Which is cool--I always thought (despite liking it) that
      the movie of "Spiderman" dipped once or twice too many times in
      bathos (the comic book had drowned long ago).

      So if the special effects are less than state-of-the-art perfect
      (though Liz's blue flame, CGI obviousness and all, has an ethereal
      beauty), the villainy less than memorable (though Roden's Rasputin
      has his moments, especially in his confrontation with Hurt's
      Bruttenholm), and the plot not especially frightening (though
      Kroenen and the hellhound do deliver the occasional chill), it may
      be because del Toro in adapting Mignola may not have focused so much
      on them as he has on drawing out the main characters and the exact
      emotional tone under which they exist in the world. He may not have
      been so interested in action sequences (though many a contemporary
      director could learn about clarity of cutting and camerawork from
      him) or overall look (though the amber-lit sewer darkness you see in
      most of the film--the rare major scene in actual daylight has a
      funereal downpour--is better than the digitally enhanced busyness of
      most comic-book movies) as he was in capturing the low-key wryness
      of Mignola's work.

      Hence, the careful detailing of supporting characters, and their
      complex relationship with HB: Sapiens is the respected partner and a
      droll contrast to HB's world-weariness (Hyde Pierce's dry delivery
      helps); Manning is the authoritarian foil with the odd layer of
      sympathy tucked away under all the antagonism; Myers is the annoying
      new catalyst in HB's complicated relationship with Liz, and an
      unknown quantity--he's the rare normal human who can actually keep
      up with HB without being killed (Evens' lack of screen presence
      emphasizes his status as probable cannon fodder) and, at a crucial
      instant, serve up a handy reminder to HB of what humanity is all
      about.

      Bruttenholm is the group's heart: as Hurt plays him, his warmth is
      understated--he tends to fade into the background, standing beside
      his more colorful charges--but is all the more missed when
      unexpectedly taken away. Liz, of course, is the love interest; Blair
      suggests the complexity of her relationship with HB through, of all
      things, an odd lack of enthusiasm--it's clear that she cares about
      him, but it's equally clear that a lot of pain and suffering comes
      with that feeling, as inescapable emotional baggage.

      Unique comic-book look and interesting supporting characters aside,
      the whole thing turns on the actor playing Hellboy, of course, and
      it is to del Toro and Mignola's credit that they preternaturally
      agreed on Ron Perlman. Perlman's performance is what makes "Hellboy"
      so different from your run-of-the-mill superhero movie: his craggy
      face already halfway resembles a soulful creature from Hell, but he
      has the been-there, done-that mien to carry off the characterization
      without weighing down too heavily on the melancholy--he wins you
      over, but sneakily, almost grudgingly, without your noticing it (he
      steals your sympathy with all the élan of a master pickpocket); the
      scene where HB spies on Liz and Myers as they take a slow walk down
      a deserted street is a perfect mix of macho bluster, boyish
      naughtiness, and monstrous vulnerability.

      The film, in short, is giddy fun, and not in the usual ways you
      would expect of a comic book movie (How many, for example, feature
      gargantuan hostile calamari as a showstopper climax? And, more
      interestingly, not consider that the film's true climax?). Del
      Toro's version of Mike Mignola's work takes various disparate
      elements--Lovecraft horror and hardboiled Chandler noir; mordant
      humor and teen-geek psychology; big-budget special effects and low-
      key characterization--flings them together, achieves critical mass,
      and fuses. The result is easily the best and most sophisticated
      comic-book adaptation since Tim Burton's "Batman" and "Batman
      Returns."

      (First published in Businessworld, April 23, 2004)

      (Comments? Email me at
      noelbotevera@...)
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