Pose and Atmosphere 

Hellboy captures the look and tone of the comic book almost exactly

Hellboy captures the look and tone of the comic book almost exactly

Noel Murray


Dir.: Guillermo del Toro

PG-13, 132 min.

Now playing at area theaters

The typical Hellboy comic book story begins with an arcane ritual, followed by ridiculously complicated backstory, followed by a dozen or so pages of the title character beating the crap out of some Lovecraftian beastie. Writer-artist Mike Mignola's ghost-stomping hero has become a cult success among readers because of its stellar draftsmanship and the scant suggestion of thematic depth. The comics are all about Hellboy's badass attitude and how cool he looks with his massive rock-fist, filed-down horns, snaky tail, red skin, sideburns and trench coat. They're also about the way Mignola draws his star's paranormal battles—a style that fuses Steve Ditko's Dr. Strange with Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four, with a light overlay of pop art abstraction. The series' fan base consists mainly of genre fetishists, not folks looking for complex, compelling narratives.

The gift and the curse of Guillermo del Toro's big-screen adaptation of Hellboy is that it captures the look and tone of the comic almost exactly. A heavily (and impressively) made-up Ron Perlman plays the title character, who's introduced after a lengthy pre-credits sequence that establishes the hero's origin as the product of a Nazi occult experiment organized by the reanimated corpse of Rasputin. Hellboy and his super-powered cohorts at the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense—including the amphibian psychic Abe Sapien and the moody pyrokinetic Liz Sherman—are called into action in the present day when Rasputin and his Nazi legions return. The bad guys are hatching a plot to use Hellboy to open an inter-dimensional gateway and bring a reign of demons to Earth, and the immediate manifestation of this plot is a plague of lizard-like creatures.

Writer-director del Toro draws this story from a couple of Hellboy mini-series and adds some elements from the comic's general mythology. Most significantly, he plays up the hero's unrequited love for Sherman (played by Selma Blair), who's too insecure to acknowledge his advances. Del Toro also emphasizes a subtle, ever-present theme in Mignola's stories: the idea that a being can be created for evil purposes but can still choose to do good. Even the minor characters in the Hellboy movie undergo some personality flip-flops over the course of the film.

But del Toro is so devoted to the source material that he's made a movie sure to thrill fans and leave neophytes a little bored. Hellboy looks fantastic: The action sequences are well-designed, the special effects are seamless and Mignola's gothic design sense is precisely translated. But like the comic books, this movie is more of a tableau to be pored over than a white-knuckle adventure tale to be enjoyed on its own merits. Chances are, the movie will play better for people willing to watch it over and over, studying the meticulous compositions of power in conflict. Hellboy is really for a certain type of fantasy fan: the kind who gets off on pose and atmosphere.


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