Ron Perlman has made a career out of projecting humanity through latex — the closest he’s come to mainstream stardom was his starring role on TV’s Beauty and the Beast — and Hellboy could almost be his doctoral thesis. Carrying a $66 million fantasy-adventure, Perlman, at age 53, strides in like a hungry young actor itching to prove something, only with 22 years of experience lending him charisma and confidence. It’s a star-making performance, full of surly wit and understated pathos, and should qualify him for high-profile roles without make-up (I still remember with pleasure his unadorned work in 1995’s The Last Supper).
Aside from Perlman, Hellboy is a fun if rather cluttered affair. As directed by Guillermo del Toro, it’s a bottomless bowl of eye candy, but you know what they say about too much candy. Del Toro, a genuinely gifted filmmaker, has shown us two faces: In his native Mexico, he crafts subtle and original horror dramas (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone); in Hollywood, he has a little too much fun with the pricey toys (Blade II and the abortive Mimic, which its studio Miramax diddled with). Hellboy falls somewhere in between — it has moments of inspiration, and you can feel del Toro’s glee at working on a large-scale comic-book canvas. Still, I prefer del Toro’s smaller works; it’s the difference between a nice tray of sushi and a tub of popcorn — both suit a particular mood, but del Toro prepares sushi too well to settle for popping popcorn.
Hellboy (Perlman) is a demon, brought here through an interdimensional portal during World War II and raised by paranormal expert Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt); he works for the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, sniffing out otherworldly nasties and eliminating them. The idea, by way of Mike Mignola’s comic book of the same name, smacks of a zillion movies (and comics), and the movie’s plot — Hellboy and various other BPRD recruits pursue the still-living Rasputin (Karel Roden) and his cohorts, who want to hand the world over to Lovecraftian evil gods — is essentially unsurprising. The film unavoidably becomes a string of set pieces wherein Hellboy faces off against some many-tentacled monster or another, and there’s much pulp-movie posturing (the bad guys aren’t just occult villains, they’re Nazis) and special-effects wizardry that might feel more magical if we didn’t suspect the art had peaked with the Lord of the Rings series.
Del Toro also tries to make room for a love story between Hellboy (who, deep down, is a big softy — he loves kittens, for instance, and seems to keep dozens of them in his quarters) and a pyrokinetic loner named Liz (Selma Blair, taking on the difficult task of playing a woman who’s drugged out of most emotion for the bulk of the movie). A sequence in which Liz goes out for coffee with a BPRD newbie (Rupert Evans), while a jealous Hellboy hops from roof to roof following them, feels both necessary and unnecessary: It certainly doesn’t move the plot (or what passes for it) forward, but it shows us a different side of Hellboy, particularly when he sits and listens, not especially patiently, to the advice of a nine-year-old boy on the subject of unrequited love.
Bits like that made me wish the whole movie could’ve been about Hellboy and Liz, and how their relationship might (or might not) work. Del Toro achieves a formidable lyricism towards the end, when the demon (who is fireproof) and the fiery woman join in a kiss, enveloped by pulsing blue flame. Most of Hellboy, though, is preoccupied with the stuff that too many fanboy dreams are made of — bashing and explosions and spooky-nasty zombie Nazis with blades that cut through stone. Guillermo del Toro can do this stuff with more ease than many Hollywood hacks, but at some level it’s still hackwork — a Saturday-matinee escapist cruddiness compromises its power as a visionary fantasy. Del Toro may be one of those directors who work better on lower budgets: Hellboy at best is entertaining, but del Toro has been, and can be, more than a studio-financed magician pulling expensive rabbits out of expensive hats.