Friday, March 4, 2011

del Toro Time: Hellboy

Hellboy (2004, Guillermo del Toro)

‘Give Evil Hell’

The tag line quoted above graced the theatrical trailers of 2004’s Hellboy. Heavily marketed and highly anticipated, it was a dream collaboration between a filmmaker and a comic book artist who both showed unabashed love for marvellous and terrifying creatures. The director, of course, was Guillermo del Toro and the comic artist-writer was Mike Mignolia. Fantasy action fans geared up to rejoice in what promised to be one hell of a good time. The tag line was suitably chosen play of words. The ‘Hell’ in question is one of the more unique anti-superhero creations to emerge from the world of graphic novels, a man-sized demon straight from the underworld, but rather than wreaking havoc on humanity, he is trained to protect us from havoc. Guillermo del Toro’s understanding of the character goes far beyond what the adrenaline induced tag line has in mind. Despite appearances, Hellboy represents qualities human beings should convey but often fail to.

The film offers a little bit of history for the uninitiated by re-writing history itself as we understand it. During the latter stages of the second World War, Hitler commissions a terrible sorcerer by the name of Grigori Rasputin (Karel Roden) to break the barriers between Earth and the beyond by unleashing a demon onto humanity. The Allied forces, aided by a professor who specializes in the occult, Trevor Broom (John Hurt), foil the Nazi plan to a degree, although a baby demon still manages to pass through the created portal. With Rasputin temporarily defeated, professor Broom adopts the demon into his home and brings him up to be a good person, one who will help in the fight against those who wish ill upon the world. The demon is lovingly baptised Hellboy (Ron Perlman), who, along with love interest Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), an emotionally repressed woman who can launch blue fire from her hands, and Abe Sapien (physically interpreted by frequent del Toro collaborator Doug Jones, although voiced by David Hyde Pierce), a ‘giant frog’, venture into the night to smash monsters. As members of the BPRD, the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defence, they are quite the force. Things take a complicated turn the day Rasputin announces his miraculous return from the dead, as well as the arrival of a young FBI agent at the BPRD, John Myers (Rupert Evans), who takes a liking to Liz, much to the dismay of Hellboy.

There is an undeniable joy to Hellboy which lifts it above the vast majority of other films inspired by comics and graphic novels. With a cursory look at the nature of the material, this accomplished sense of fun might arrive as a surprise. Demons, emotionally challenged fire wielding women and monsters that lurk the alleyways and sewers? What dramatic pull the movie possesses we shall analyze in just a moment, but before engaging in a serious minded, pseudo-intellectual dissection of Hellboy’s thematic resonance, it needs to be made clear that Hellboy is a must see for fans of action comedies, especially those decorated with elements of the fantastic. Everything sublime of the film revolves around one ingredient, that being the character of Hellboy himself. If the titular character does not work, whether through the writing or the acting, than all else suffers. Suffice to say that Hellboy is one of the most engaging central figures in a film to come around in a long time. Part of it has to do with the nature of the beast (he is a freaking demon! With a giant stone hand!), the rest of the credit rests squarely at the feat of the actor performing underneath the mountains of makeup, Ron Perlman. Few actors in the business can play cranky and nasty as Perlman can. He imbues Hellboy with a lovable brashness which both exacerbates his superiors and sometimes his father, all the while entertaining the audience with wise cracks. Once again, that tag line we have already discussed comes into play. He does not simply represent hell because he comes from the region, he is a living hell to be around for some. Hellboy embarks on his missions equipped with the latest technological advances in weaponry, but his mouth can often defeat the most patient of partners. Always one to retort with a low-ball verbal attack or two, Hellboy has plenty of fun vaporizing enemies and terrorizing the-would be terrorists. For all the talent on display in the shape of Doug Jones, the wonderful John Hurt (who plays the part of professor Broom, father figure to Hellboy, beautifully) and the icy Selma Blair, it is Perlman who truly shines. His casting was the coup-de-grâce, a case where it becomes incredibly difficult to imagine who else could play better once one has seen the film.

This remains a del Toro film, through and through however. If Cronos demonstrated how the Mexican director finds pleasure in developing worlds in which gothic creatures and emotionally engaging stories mingle, Hellboy accentuates it. There is much more happening in the movie than meetsthe eye, at least on an emotional level,  the eye. Hellboy's outcast status lands him in the most difficult of situations. In order to avoid the alarm of a public who would never truly understand who Hellboy is, his very existence is kept a secret. It is only by bending the rules that the demon can hop around rooftops outside and breath the same wonderful polluted air that regular people do. His monstrous exterior (and I type this only in the context of the story, for he is a demon. The actual costume and makeup design are excellent) belies the truth about a person caught in an amazingly frustrating and complicated predicament. Professor Broom has taught him the ways of human decency, and therefore Hellboy understands the good in his work. Yet, because of the unpredictable and often violent nature of prejudice people in the outside world, he could never be a part of the wider society. Above all else, what he understands in the most painful way is the capacity for love, for he is in love of with the shutoff Liz Sherman. They are both freaks, for lack of a better term, and the possibility of them ever becoming a couple is frequently thwarted by certain incompatible personality traits. To love is the greatest of humanity’s strengths, as it is also the greatest catalysts for pain. Hellboy understands this all too well, but marches on nonetheless, faithful to his father, his few friends and the altruistic nature of his job. The devotion to good he exemplifies in a single day of work goes far beyond what most humans accomplish in a lifetime. At the most basic level though, if humans can love, than they should be saved, even if they would never love him. Del Toro continuously succeeds at reminding the viewer that all of his characters are living, breathing people with hearts. Rather than fall prey to melodrama, he pushes the right buttons with the correct intensity. 

Hellboy is equally memorable for its action set pieces and the foes against which the BPRD face off against. Del Toro manages to juggle comedy and thrills all at once throughout the picture and in particular in the scenes featuring battles. The chase for a large reptilian creature through the streets of the city at night (‘Red mean stop!’ is one of my personal favourite lines in the film), the confrontation in the metro station, the climactic battle against a larger than life squid-like creature which is to destroy the world, all these put the ingenuity and hard work of everyone involved in the movie front and center. Just like the dialogue and characterizations, the action sequences themselves are gifted with a sense of fun.

Hellboy is intended to be mainstream fair, which it is given the sizable budget and type of adventure-oriented plot it concentrates on, yet it also clearly resonates as a del Toro film, which is a testament to the man’s capacity to stay true to the things he loves putting into his movies (and his ability to choose a comic book property that was right up his ally). It seems rare that films that such this one satisfy both the masses and the die-hard admirers of the source material as well as the director’s oeuvre. Typically, one of those categories of people goes home happy while the others bemoan what could have been. As cocky as he might be, maybe it is just too darn difficult to hate Hellboy.


thevoid99 said...

Great Review Edgar. While I prefer the second one more for its set pieces, action, and a broader production value.

I totally enjoyed the first one and when I first saw it on TV. I didn't think I was going to enjoy but then, I couldn't stop watching. It was Ron Perlman's performance that won me over and the way Guillermo del Toro created these scenes. I had heard of del Toro's name before but didn't take him seriously. Yet, this I would say was my first introduction to the director.

If I was to point out to people what's the best place to start in watching del Toro's films. Well, if you're a casual filmgoer, it's this film. If you're a film buff, Pan's Labyrinth. Keep it up man. I like reading these reviews.

edgarchaput said...

@thevoid99: I aim to please, especially if one enjoys reading about film.

Ron Perlam owns the movie.

Anonymous said...

Hellboy is a blast to watch. I think unlike a lot of superhero films, this one isn't afraid to be campy and goofy and I think it works in its favor. I love the world, I love the characters and I love the universe the film puts us in.

And yes, Ron Pearlman is amazing in this film. Man, I want to go watch this film again right now.