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Del Toro Brings Humor and Style to ‘Hellboy’
by Jeremy Mathews
Ron Perlman plays a superhero who shaves his horns so that he’ll fit in and get to kiss Selma Blair in “Hellboy.”

Revolution Studios/Columbia Pictures
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay by Guillermo del Toro, based on the comic book by Mike Mignola
Starring Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Jeffrey Tambor, Karel Roden, Brian Steele, Doug Jones, Rupert Evans and John Hurt
Rated PG-13

(out of four)

In the ruins of an old cathedral on a dark night in 1944, the Nazis opened a portal to an outer space-like underworld. A British scientist and American soldiers, however, ambushed the event and adopted a red, monkey-like baby with one giant stone hand and a love for candy bars. They raised him to fight evil for the good of mankind.

This is a comic book premise that could have turned into a film as bad as “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” but writer/director and passionate comic fan Guillermo del Toro infuses his work with the kind of atmospheric compositions and dark humor that are at home in the comics.

Ron Perlman plays the outcast who defends the same population that alienates him and spotlights him in the tabloids with blurry photos.

John Hurt touchingly plays Trevor “Broom” Bruttenholm, the scientist who saves the baby, names him Hellboy (an unfortunate name in hindsight, he admits) and raises him. Sixty years after discovering him, Broom is dying while his slow-aging son is in the equivalent of his 20s. The surrogate father and son are at odds because Hellboy has to stay out of the public eye while working at the FBI’s Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, where he’s the ultimate weapon against evil forces.

Leading a lonely life, Hellboy keeps his horns shaved to “fit in,” so it looks like he has big goggles up above his eyes in certain light…and like he has cut-off horns in better light. Abe Sapian (Doug Jones), a fellow employee who has special fish-like powers and psychic abilities, explains that Hellboy likes to do “the lone-hero thing” when he enters a dangerous room with nothing but his gun.

A depressed superhero, Hellboy plays hooky from his confinement like a misfit schoolboy. He pines for Liz (Selma Blair in top form), who has a difficult-to-control fire-starting ability—the perfect match for a fireproof man. Unfortunately for Hellboy, a love triangle is brewing. Broom recruits a young FBI agent, John Myers (Rupert Evans), to become Hellboy’s new chaperon, and he gets the non-fiery hots for Hellboy’s dream woman. Myers also serves as the layman who witnesses all the oddities for the first time, bridging the audience and the other characters. In a moment of quiet comedy, Hellboy sits on a rooftop with an amused child and spies on his escort and his love while eating cookies.

The enemy releasing the evil is named Rasputin (Karel Roden), and he has died many times in his quest to purify the world by destroying it.

I can’t say I fully comprehend the intricacies of the Nazi (or is it Russian?) plot, but in a film like this it doesn’t really matter. “Hellboy’s” main draw is its impressive action scenes, aided by the contradictory character of a hero born of evil who grows up to deny his fate and help mankind.

The fight scenes favor fists and other appendages over the trendy gravity-defying martial arts. The only time Hellboy flies through the air is after being punched. Hellboy has a giant revolver to match his figure, and he loads it up with hi-tech bullets with traditional demon killing agents. He also has to lose the gun and get dirty in the equivalent of paranormal bar fights.

The film’s biggest flaw is the repetitive design of the tentacled demon monsters, which grows tiresome even though it makes sense that the replicating monsters would all look about the same. “Didn’t I kill you already?” Hellboy asks, echoing the sentiment that the barrage of monsters inspires. Luckily, the settings and choreography keep things interesting, avoiding “Starship Troopers”-like monotony.

Much of the action in the film’s first half takes place in the labyrinthine tunnels (and the occasional public platform) of the subway system, which includes a wonderfully murky reservoir into which Abe dives to steal demon eggs with nothing but a Catholic artifact as his defense. The final act takes place in a Russian cemetery with booby-trapped tunnels that seem designed to top the subway set.

The final act doesn’t drop the humor. Hellboy digs up a corpse to give him directions, but the revived body generally just seems pissed off that somebody woke him up. In another nice touch, the relationship between Hellboy and a bureaucratic FBI chief (Jeffrey Tambor) reaches a comic and character-driven conclusion.

Guillermo Navarro’s cinematography and del Toro’s detailed attention to costumes, props and sets solidifies the film as one of the best-looking films of the year, while Perlman’s performance makes it a whole lot of fun.

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