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Hellboy
Reviewed by Mark Finn, © 2004

Format: Movie
By:   Guillermo del Toro (director),Mike Mignola (creator)
Released:   April 2, 2004
Review Date:   March 15, 2004
RevSF Rating:   10/10 (What Is This?)

Comic book movies used to be a dicey proposition, full of changes, compromises, and needless alterations in the name of Making Movies. In our modern Spider-Man/X-Men mindset, it's difficult to remember the profound disappointment that washed over us when we first watched Batman & Robin or Superman III. These are grumblings best left to the old-timers. You youngsters have it easy.

That's why I was initially worried when I heard about Hellboy being optioned, pre-Spider-Man/X-Men. At that time, no one had made a good super hero movie (are we counting Blade?) in years. I mean, if they can mess up Batman, how on Earth were they going to get Hellboy right?

Then I found out that Guillermo del Toro was at the helm. I relaxed a lot, because if it's one thing I knew, Guillermo was a Hellboy fan. He and I have had several lengthy and gushing conversations about Hellboy. I knew it was in good hands. The movie may not be perfect, I reasoned, but it wouldn't be for a lack of him trying.

Still, there's always doubt, however small, however insignificant. It creeps around like sand in your shorts and irritates you. I had read every single Hellboy comic published by Dark Horse. It's one of my favorite books of all time. In my Geek-Heart, I'd already accepted that they will make some changes, but will it still be, you know, Hellboy?

The short answer is yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

Del Toro said, in his opening remarks at the World Premiere in Austin, Texas, that “...we're finally seeing movies made for geeks, by geeks.” This observation was met with thunderous applause. And he's right. Only a Hellboy geek would have made this movie and put as much good stuff in the film. More amazing is the fact that all of that weird and wonderful stuff really works as a movie!

The character is the invention of Mike Mignola, a well-respected creator in the comic book industry (known by many as an artist's artist). Hellboy was Mignola's dream project, a chance for him to do a comic about all of the things that he was geeky about, like the Weird Tales pulp stories of H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard, and the pow-crash action fare of Jack Kirby's comics.

Hellboy is a member of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, a secret organization of monster hunters and ghost chasers. As their top field agent, he's frequently used for their most dangerous missions. Oh, and he also happens to be a demon from hell, summoned to earth in the 1940s by Nazi occultists led by the legendary Rasputin. The stories are rife with horror references, in-jokes, deadpan humor, and a charmingly refreshing level of violence. Hellboy's method of dealing with the supernatural is to hit the monster until it stops moving around.

The movie borrows heavily from the first trade paperback collection Seed of Destruction and its follow-ups, Wake the Devil and The Right Hand of Doom. The real treat for diehard fans are nods to some of the shorter stories in the series that drew big laughs in a 1,200 seat theater full of paste-eating comic book dorks. (And no, I'm not going to tell you which short stories. What website do you think this is?) Del Toro collaborated closely with Mignola for the duration of the film, too, and you can really see it in the visuals and the subtle asides.

Just as the comic book series rewards horror and pulp fans, del Toro's Hellboy rewards genre movie geeks by relying on a brilliant form of shorthand to introduce the character's world. Echoes of The X-Files, Ghostbusters, and other genre staples abound for the non-comics fans and do the job of telling you what's what very nicely. It also helps that monster-hunters are an accepted part of horror and action movies, and that point is underscored early and often. Hellboy is the monster who fights other monsters. Of course, the real bad guys have other plans for him, and this drives the conflict throughout the film. This movie works even if you're not a disciple of the Hellboy comics.

But del Toro IS that Hellboy fan, and his screenplay is full of the things that we read the comics for: Hellboy punches a lot of stuff, smokes several cigars, and shows off his unflappable world-weary attitude. Liz Sherman is as messed up as any self-respecting pyrokinetic should be, and Abe Sapien is pulled straight out of the comics. If anything, he's actually cooler in the flesh.

The heart and soul of the movie, however, is Ron Perlman's performance. Good God almighty, he really pulled it off. The voice, the attitude, those little signature moments. He was perfect, and I do mean PERFECT in the role. Del Toro knew this too, as he was the director's first and only choice for the character. Seriously. You won't know how they could have put anyone else under the make-up.

I'm not sure how anyone could NOT like the film. It opens with a Cthulhu Mythos reference, for Pete's sake! It's tentacles and icky stuff, testosterone and pamcakes, pulp-style Nazis and FBI guys, secret organizations and explosions, real emotions and schoolboy antics, crowns of fire and love stories, fairy tales and big honking guns. Yeah, it's really all of that and more. It looks good. It feels right. They make it all work in ways that I never thought were possible.

This is the first must-see geek movie of 2004. The faithful translation to film, coupled with del Toro's quirky visual style, made this some of the best eye candy I've seen since Spider-Man or X2. It's that good. Expect to hear some quibbles about the occasional CGI shot, or minor character tweak. In other words, the usual bullshit. (Hey, it's the Geek Nation. Some joker actually asked del Toro how come there was no Lobster Johnson in the film. Give me a break....) To them I say this: If that's all you're upset about, then this film is an unqualified success. Considering that I would have deemed this project unfilmable, and by contrast the sheer number of creepy tentacles that made it into the movie, you'll swallow your tongue at what they got right. Del Toro and Mignola are really proud of the movie. Go see Hellboy and you'll understand why.

Mark Finn is the Games Editor for RevolutionSF and the author of two books of fiction: Gods New and Used and Year of the Hare. To get the latest info, rants, and missives from Finn, visit http://groups.yahoo.com/group/finnswake. And Finn is Blogging now: www.livejournal.com/users/finnswake.

 
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