In the 1940s, the Nazis attempt a last-ditch attempt to change the course of WW2 by releasing the Seven Gods of Chaos from their ancient prison. The ritual is thwarted but not before something slips through the opened portal, a red baby demon that is nicknamed Hellboy. Sixty years later, Hellboy is a six and a half foot tall, virtually indestructible giant who works as an agent in the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. When an old enemy returns to bring about the Apocalypse, Hellboy and his fellow agents in the BPRD must defeat the demons of the past, and the demons within.
Another month, another comic book adaptation, but this is one that is a little out of the ordinary. The original Hellboy comic was the brainchild of one Mike Mignola, a distinctive artist who mixed Nazi occultism, the mythos of HP Lovecraft, and folk myths and legends into his stories of the paranormal investigator with the giant stone right hand. The big-screen version comes courtesy of long-time fan Guillermo Del Toro, and is a dream come true for him; Del Toro has wanted to direct a Hellboy film for years, and passed on both Blade: Trinity (probably a good move in hindsight) and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in order to do so.
Recent superhero films from the likes of Bryan Singer and Sam Raimi have reminded audiences that a superhero film doesn’t have to be of the completely brainless action variety, like the Joel Schumacher Batman films. Hellboy exists somewhere between the two, bereft of a big enough budget to effect any eye-popping action sequences, and lacking sufficiently developed characters to carry the film as a drama. The budgetary handicap was self-imposed by Del Toro, who had always wanted to cast Ron Perlman rather than an unknown and so made the necessary sacrifice. Mike Mignola had also advocated Perlman from the very start, and they made the right choice. Hellboy hinges on its central performance, and Perlman brings the character to life with a cocky attitude and irascible wit.
As is par for the course, character development elsewhere is rather patchy and only Hellboy and the pyrokinetic Liz Sherman are well-rounded enough to deserve any sympathy from the audience. The new boy, John Myers, is used as an effective means of introducing the various members of the BRPD, but Myers is a fairly limp character and does very little for the rest of the film other than to form part of an unconvincing love triangle between himself, Liz and Hellboy. Other notable contributions are those of David Hyde Pierce, who provides an excellent voice for (the mainly CG) Abe Sapien, and the perenially excellent John Hurt, who lends some gravitas to the affair as the head of the BRPD and Hellboy’s adoptive father, Professor Brumenholm. Sadly neither of them get as much screen-time as they deserved, and the film suffers as a result. On the side of evil, only the Nazi assassin Kroenen is worth mentioning, as both of his companions are as devoid of menace as the Seven Squids of Chaos.
So, on the Right Hand of Doom Hellboy has sharp dialogue, wry humour and an eclectic group of personalities. On the merely human left hand, it has a series of repetitive set-pieces, thin characters, a plot with a number of gaping holes, and an anti-climatic end. It’s probably just me, but the finale could have done with Hellboy taking on an army of Nazi zombies rather than another CG monster. Saying that, it beats its Resident Evil equivalent tentacles, ahem, hands down.
Though it doesn’t reach the heights of, say, Spiderman 2, Hellboy is a decent enough effort that entertains in a fairly mindless way. Hellboy 2 is already in pre-production, with Del Toro at the helm again, and with previously established characters and a bigger budget, the sequel has the potential to be the awesome film that Hellboy could have been.