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Saturday 23 June 2007

Hellboy (2004) Guillermo Del Toro

We open with a narration by John Hurt talking about what makes a man, then switch to some Scots island that looks like a deformed lizard. It's 1944 and the all American GIs are fighting the Nazis, and not just any Nazis but the Thule Occult Society, led by a freaky Nazi in a really cool gasmask. After all the Nazis always had the best uniforms. Here they also have Grigori Rasputin (yes, that one) who is using old Lovecraftian books to summon something from beyond the ruins of this Scots abbey. Of course the good guys have Trevor 'Broom' Bruttenholm, paranormal researcher.

The opening scenes are great, in a very exploitation way. No, they don't make much sense from any other standpoint, but you just can't go wrong with a weird Nazi occultist having blades extend from his arms to fight American soldiers while Rasputin gets sucked into the void. From an exploitation standpoint, you really can't do much better than that, and that's just the start of the movie. While things go through the portal to the other side, of course something comes through to this side too. That something is Hellboy, who soon grows up to be Ron Perlman. Tell me this isn't awesome.

Well I've seen this one before and I didn't. I'd seen some of director Guillermo Del Toro's work and I'd read eight or nine volumes of the Hellboy graphic novels by Mike Mignola. I loved Hellboy but I didn't love Hellboy for some reason or other. Now I've seen even more Del Toro, including the intriguing Cronos and the astounding Pan's Labyrinth and it's high time I took another look at Hellboy.

Back in the modern day, Broom is running the supposedly nonexistent Bureau for Paranormal Research, which was founded by Roosevelt and hides behind its Waste Management Services front somewhere in New Jersey. At the bureau, Hellboy is just one of the guys. He's red, he has a huge armoured right hand, filed down horns, a tail and a samurai top knot, but he's just one of the guys. So is Abe Sapien, a weird psychic fish creature with a great memory, discovered the day Lincoln was shot, and probably many more.

Ron Perlman was born to play this part and Del Toro has wanted to film him in it for a long, long time. I've read a great interview with Perlman where he talke about it, pointing out that the highly successful Blade II was, to Del Toro, nothing but a practice run and an audition for Hellboy. every movement he makes is perfect, every glimpse of character is a peach. Every line is delivered wonderfully and exactly as it should be and Hellboy may just be the most quotable performance ever seen on film. Even crossing a road is wonderfully done. I may be a huge Ron Perlman fan anyway but this part was his destiny and he's up to every moment of it.

The rest of the cast are damn fine too, even if Karel Roden plays Rasputin like Gary Oldman and Selma Blair plays the wildly talented firestarter Liz Sherman like Winona Ryder. John Hurt is wonderful as the aging and secretly sick Broom who still has a fight left in him. Doug Jones manages to instil character in Abe Sapien even though he's well hidden behind some serious creature design, just like in Pan's Labyrinth where he played the faun. Ladislav Beran isn't far off being as successful as Karl Ruprecht Kroenen, even though he doesn't get the opportunity to speak. Rupert Evans is the 'normal' guy thrown into the middle of it all, as an FBI agent reassigned to the Bureau, and he's fine.

The dry humour outstrips the effects, which are very good indeed but somehow just off perfect: some of the creatures are a little too rubber suity and some of the other effects are a little too effecty. The fantasy comic book world we're drawn into is a little overdone, well beyond any level of believability we can apply to it and not even consistent within its own framework. It's all great fun and very very cool indeed, but it's a step beyond a step beyond, and it ends on a whole slew of disappointing and cliched melodrama.

There's a lot of Lovecraft here, 'cyclopean' and 'tentacled' being words that spring readily to mind, but there's some solid cinematic heritage too. It isn't just the obvious Men in Black type thing, it's Foreign Correspondent, Pit and the Pendulum and The Big Red One as well and probably a few that I missed. It's obviously a labour of love for Del Toro, who is a huge comic book junkie and it's just a shame that with all his passion and his talent, he didn't do Hellboy as much justice as Robert Rodriguez did to Sin City. I upped my rating, but not much. There are still some major flaws, but I'm more and more eager for the sequel.

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