Review: “Hellboy”

Like any movie trend such as the resurrgence of horror in the mid-late 90’s, we’ve come to that time where comic book adaptations are now every other month and the early great efforts (eg. X-Men, Spider-Man), have long gone in favour of crappy (Daredevil, LXG), awkward (Hulk) or ‘middle of the road’ style efforts.

Kicking off this year’s excursion into the genre is “Hellboy”, Guillermo Del Toro’s big budget studio take on the beautifully illustrated, offbeat, Mike Mignola-penned Dark Horse comic series. The stories were a richly dark and dry humoured detective series filled with demons, mutants, all sorts of creatures, etc. The film on the other hand is an action epic with heavy make-up, gadget usage and demonic elements. Does it succeed?

“Hellboy” is no “X-Men”, but it’s better than either LXG or “Daredevil” to be sure. That’s mostly due to the fact that unlike those two which were almost unrecognisable from their respective comics, “Hellboy” is one of the most slavishly faithful to its origins of any film in this genre with the scenery, characters, etc. all so close to the comic that the attention to detail and production design is truly astonishing. The sets, make-up and visuals are all pretty glorious and eye-catching, whilst the mixed use of CG and practical effects are for the most part indistinguishable. Other elements in the comic never really explored such as the Kroenen character are cleverly expanded upon, whilst slightly different looks/takes on characters like Abe Sapien are inspired.

Like any film in this genre as well though, “Hellboy” suffers from having to get through a lot of exposition and back story in a short amount of time, thus the introduction of a young fresh-faced new agent (a solid debut by Rupert Evans) to the Bureau on the one hand works well for those not familiar with the comics, but it also gives the first hour more of an expensive TV pilot feel (a very good one though) than an actual feature film. Indeed the main problem is that the film’s actual plot suffers under the weight of all the back story to wade through, thus quite often even though things are roaring or exploding around the screen, it’s all dimmed by what seems to be a surprising lack of drive and energy.

I asked a fellow webmaster about this a few months back as he’d been a lot closer to the movie than I had and was raving about it. I asked, so what’s the story of the movie? He responded it’s about Hellboy’s origins. I knew that like the comic, the opening 20 minutes or so of the film would deal with that as such (and it does superbly), so I asked again “Ok after the opening bit, what’s the rest of the film’s story?” – no response.

That was my main concern going in and it was justified – with so much attention to how the film looked, the story within the film doesn’t feel developed and more like a bland action blockbuster version of one of the comics admittedly quirky niche detective tales (it’s a lot like comparing the differences between the early “Batman” movies and animated series – both have their respective strengths and weaknesses).

The lack of a strong coherent narrative to pull it altogether can’t take away from the fact that there’s some truly glorious looking things in here (eg. Abe, the Ogdru Jahad crystal prison/emergence, Kroenen) and the love of the comic by the filmmakers is obvious in their attention to detail, but sometimes the action comes off decidedly flat – most notably towards the end as the action gets repetitive (how many Sammael fights are there in this thing) or cartoonish. Likewise the attempts at humour never really click aside from some homages to the comics, a Russian corpse, and one sequence where Hellboy’s is jealous of the new guy moving in on Liz and keeps watch on them (the romance subplot with Liz sadly just doesn’t click).

So the verdict on this is a tough one to deliver – inventive but derivative, well performed yet slightly hokey, visually lush yet over-stylised, the contradictions go on and on. It’s no “Men in Black” or “Ghostbusters” (the films most will draw comparisons too) but it’s better than both their sequels. You have to give props to Del Toro, Perlman and those involved for sticking so loyally to the material and delivering such an unique looking movie that genre fans will come to love, but whether it will reach out much beyond that audience it’s too hard to tell – I hope it does though, there’s more passion and flavour in this than pretty much any movie so far this year and it deserves to be seen for that.