RasputinJeffrey TamborSelma BlairDoug Jones
Medium: film
Year: 2004
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writer: Guillermo del Toro, Peter Briggs, Mike Mignola
Keywords: superhero, World War II, Rasputin
Country: USA
Actor: Ron Perlman, John Hurt, Selma Blair, Rupert Evans, Karel Roden, Jeffrey Tambor, Doug Jones, Brian Steele, Ladislav Beran, Biddy Hodson, David Hyde Pierce, Corey Johnson, Kevin Trainor, Brian Caspe, James Babson, Stephen Fisher, Garth Cooper, Angus MacInnes, Jim Howick, Mark Taylor
Format: 122 minutes, or 132 minutes (director's cut)
Series: Hellboy >>
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0167190/
Website category: Superhero
Review date: 19 August 2009
I like it a lot, but the story's a mess. Some of that would seem to be boneheaded studio interference, but I don't think we can put all the blame on that. There are too many story elements floating around that don't feel as if they've earned their place in the film.
We'll begin with the studio executives, though, since I like shooting fish in barrels. Hellboy had been a dream project for years for Guillermo del Toro, but no one would greenlight it until the massive success of Blade II. Even then the producers wanted to change the hero into a human who only becomes Hellboy when he's angry, or alternatively that he still come from hell but be a normal human. del Toro vetoed all that. Then they wanted it to be a Vin Diesel movie. Reading between the lines, I wonder if they thought they were commissioning something like another Blade, but with a slightly different supernatural slant. To their credit, though, they seem to have realised their mistake on seeing the finished movie and done a complete U-turn for the sequel, basically letting del Toro do whatever he liked.
That's just the stuff that got thrown out of the movie. The most obvious studio note that you can see on-screen is Agent Myers. He doesn't belong in the film. He makes almost no contribution to the story and could be edited out of the script in about half an hour, although Rupert Evans does a good job of playing him and I like the effect he has on the Hellboy-Liz relationship. He's likeable, with refreshing simplicity and an understated charm. I enjoyed watching him. It's just that he clutters up a screenplay that's already overloaded by trying to pull in too many different directions. It's obvious why he's there, though. "Everyone's so weird! The audience need a normal person to relate to. Give us a human hero." Naturally he's nowhere to be seen in the sequel, which is all the stronger for it.
Let's go through the list of what's in this movie. We have Rasputin, a Nazi assassin robot-thing and Ilsa She-Wolf of the SS. We have Lovecraftian elder gods beyond the veil of reality and their Sammael attack dog slime creatures. We have the freaks of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defence, of whom Hellboy is only one. There's also a fish-man called Abe Sapien and a pyrokinetic called Liz, not to mention apparently someone called Roger the Homunculus if you're looking carefully. He's the statue with a groin ring, briefly visible when Professor Bruttenholm is showing Agent Myers around at the beginning. You've got Rasputin wanting to destroy the world and Sammael running around New York for laughs (as far as I can tell), yet you've also got the main cast regularly stopping the plot to explore their emotional lives. In fairness, those are good scenes. They're more interesting than the A-plot, in fact. I really enjoyed the relationship stuff with Hellboy, Liz, Bruttenholm and the others, but I also got a little seasick from the film's lurching between its action and angst modes.
It feels as if del Toro pulled his villains from his arse. The Sammael ended up boring me. They look great, but fighting them is pointless because of their resurrection powers. Of the human villains, Rasputin and Ilsa get almost nothing to do, while Nazi Assassin Robot Thing (aka. Kroenen) is fun but hardly counts as a person since he resembles a fetish gimp version of the Raston Warrior Robot and never speaks throughout. It's a surprise when the script reveals that he's human. A gross surprise, mind you.
The villains don't even look good during the finale, which in the end is really about Hellboy's supernatural nature and the Lovecraftian elder gods. Whoops, no, it's about the relationship stuff again. Admittedly the latter is much more interesting than the preceding monster mash with exploding grenade belts, but the film should have done better at bringing it all together.
I don't even think the film always makes sense. Why does Kroenen turn himself off and let himself be captured? He could have just walked away, or at least if that's not the case then the film did a lousy job of communicating the fact. One might hypothesise that it was just a way of infiltrating the Bureau, but this clearly isn't necessary since Rasputin can show up there at will. In fact it's just del Toro wanting a scene of Bruttenholm removing Kroenen's armour and seeing all the disgusting things he's done to himself. Similarly my flabber was mildly ghasted at the bridge-destroying pendulum. Who'd build a thing like that? You've designed a lovely old subterranean castle that's going to stand for centuries, but then as soon as an action hero comes along you'll start smashing up your own bridges with a hammer the size of a double-decker bus.
Other peculiarities include the blood. The film's trying to avoid an R-rating, you see. Sometimes they do this elegantly, with Lovecraftian slime beasties and a man with only dust in his veins. Apparently they were wondering what else they could spray around in the action sequences, so there's a scene where Hellboy batters a monster with a payphone, sending lots of photogenic coins everywhere. However it's noticeable that Kroenen's blades only make people bleed when necessary for the shot. Those four guards in the museum should have been painting the walls, although even the actual scene might make you wince.
Apart from all that, the film's great.
I love the cast. You've got cool freaks played by good actors, although I preferred Ron Perlman in the sequel. He's still doing that deadpan violence here, but he's not quite as funny with it and he gets less cool stuff to do. Nevertheless he's still Ron Perlman and still everything del Toro would been hoping he'd be, getting a laugh from me on "ow" and more with the Hellboy stalking scene. John Hurt is his adopted father, Bruttenholm, and the subplot with the two of them is one of the most moving things in the film. Rupert Evans shouldn't be here, but that doesn't mean he's not good too. Then there's the relationship between Hellboy and Liz, which is the most important thing in the film and more than lives up to that billing. Selma Blair could easily have struggled to make an impact among all these scene-stealers, but she's doing good work too.
The film even does interesting things with Jeffrey Tambor's character, the government official who doesn't like Hellboy and manages to get someone killed through his own stupidity. He's the cliche of the Obstructive Superior, but he's also more than that. Note his cigar moment.
Agent Clay is played by Corey Johnson, incidentally, also known as Henry van Statten in Dalek. I'm afraid I thought he might be Jon Favreau.
On first viewing, I wasn't very impressed by this film. Today, I could see more clearly what didn't work, but also more clearly what did. I like it more now. It's a comic book movie that's deliberately playing with dime pulp material, but it's also giving more story time to its characters and their relationships than it is to the villains who want to destroy the world. It's a mess, but it has a lot of charm and its sequel is something special. I'll be buying number three.