I really want to like Hellboy. Not only is it based on a comic book, it’s also about a monster-fighting demon, government cover-ups, and occult Nazi magic. On top of all this, Hellboy sports some really cool characters, not the least of which is Hellboy himself. Director Guillermo del Toro also throws some great special effects at us and weaves a promising story. With this going for it, Hellboy should be a lot of fun, but it still manages to fall flat on its face.
Hellboy tells the story of a demon summoned into our world by Nazi wizards during World War II. The FBI takes the creature in, names him Hellboy, and raises him to hunt supernatural monsters. Flash-forward to 2004 and we meet the adult Hellboy (Ron Perlman), a rude, crude stereotype of rude, crude comic book badasses. He teams up with Abraham Sapien (voiced by David Hyde Pierce), a psychic merman hopelessly reminiscent of Star Wars’s C-3P0. The supernatural entities steal most of the spotlight, though we do get to know a few humans, including an FBI rookie, Agent Myers (Rupert Evans), and a mysterious woman named Liz Sherman who can light fires with her mind (Selma Blair).
Del Toro’s film follows Agent Myers after he is assigned to look after Hellboy. Almost immediately, the team is summoned to investigate a paranormal creature that eventually plays into a greater scheme involving a band of Nazis and the ancient evil they intend to unleash on the world. Hellboy and his friends soon find that they are the only ones who can save humanity from a nightmarish apocalypse. On top of all this, both Hellboy and Myers find themselves in love with Sherman, whose mysterious powers begin to rage out of control.
This is all as cliché as it sounds; in fact, Hellboy comes across as one big, winking cliché. Myers is the typical rookie agent who must prove his worth, Hellboy is the typical juggernaut with a heart of gold, and Sherman is the typical confused but powerful damsel in distress. The Nazis, of course, are typically creepy, evil Nazis. However, this is hardly one of Hellboy’s weak points. Indeed, the generic comic book characters are part of what makes Hellboy so sleek and cool. Even though we’ve heard the story about a million times, it’s undeniably fun to watch superheroes fight against evil and tangle with their personal demons.
Del Toro throws some awesome visuals at us, including Hellboy, who comes across as one big, walking special effect, but doesn’t ever seem overdone. The good guys’ base, the secret FBI Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, is wonderfully cool. Replete with occult artifacts and mysterious gadgets, it does for Hellboy what Dr. Xavier’s school did for X-Men. Even the bad guys— including a gasmask wearing Nazi masochist ninja and the reincarnated Rasputin— radiate cool. Furthermore, most of Hellboy’s catchphrases and one-liners come across really well. In short, del Toro has obviously gone to great lengths to create a movie that feels like the comic book that it is based on.
However, Hellboy loses its stride at its halfway point. Although it opened with an interesting story, some cool combat sequences, and a great comic book feel, del Toro’s film soon becomes trite and forgettable. Why? Quite simply, del Toro neglects the first rule of action movies: thou shalt never let thine audience get bored. It’s fun to watch Hellboy wreak havoc on his foes for about half an hour, but he quickly runs out of tricks to pull out of his hat. This results in a series of monotonous action sequences that deserve to be much cooler than they are.
Blame it on The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, but most of Hellboy’s fight scenes feel tired and underdone. Hellboy doesn’t even fight with any cool super powers. His fists and guns are big and nasty, but they’re nothing we haven’t seen before. On top of all this, many of Hellboy’s fight sequences are dominated by CGI rendered monsters running around the screen causing trouble until Hellboy finds some way to defeat them.
The X-Men movies succeeded because they featured interesting characters, cool special effects, and a solid comic book plot, not to mention great action sequences. In general, I’m a sucker for superheroes and all their drama, which might contribute to why Hellboy is so disappointing. Even though I’m not familiar with the Hellboy series, a story full of Nazis, demons, Lovecraftian gods, and freaky psychic powers makes for an awesome premise. However, Hellboy fails because it completely puts form over function. In this field, it’s not alone. Recent movies like Underworld, Big Fish, and The Passion of the Christ have tried to carry stories based solely on atmosphere and visual presentation. While these films have had various levels of success, all three have felt a little too overloaded with striking visuals that cover weak plots.
This seems to be indicative of a particularly disturbing trend in pop culture over the past few years. Ever since grunge died in 1994, America has become obsessed with appearing pretty and clean. Take for example the pop revolution of the late 90’s. It didn’t matter how bad the music was if it was marketed with a pretty face and poppy beat.
This trend has gotten even nastier as the culture wars have intensified over the past few months. The Martha Stewart trial was less about her being guilty as sin as it was about her being a household icon for cleanliness and perfection. People don’t want to accept that celebrities have dirty mouths and provocative bodies, so they get the FCC to crackdown on profanity. As the 2004 election, nears, most of the big issues are more about appearances than substantial issues. The gay marriage debate, for example, is as much about social appearances and recognition as it is about equal rights and morality. Similarly the debate over “Benedict Arnold CEO’s” is not so much about employment and economics as it is about trying to appear wholesome and American. It seems to me that America has become increasingly addicted to its self-assurances that everything is A-OK.
If people want their lives to be picture perfect, that’s one thing, but I won’t stand for movies that manage to suck despite being so visually interesting. Form and function (or image and substance) need to go hand in hand, like in Quentin Tarantino’s latest, Kill Bill Vol. 1, which oozes visual splendor but still manages to pull together an exciting storyline. Tarantino’s original, unforgettable fight sequences are as important to his film as his snappy dialog and self-indulgent Sonny Chiba worshipping. No matter how many times action fans watch Kill Bill, they can never, ever possibly get bored.
This is much more than I can say for Hellboy. Although it has one of the coolest premises ever, it eventually becomes just another action movie. If you’re a diehard Hellboy fan, you’re bound to love it, but del Toro offers little else for the rest of us.