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April 2, 2004

Hellboy: The Anti-Hero with a heart of gold and a huge, stone hand that rocks.

The macabre comic book character, Hellboy makes an entertaining and capable entry into feature films in this big-budget treatment by Revolution Studios and Columbia Pictures. Whether you're a fan of the comic book or a newcomer to the character, Hellboy makes a pretty entertaining movie, and it's probably a good thing that it's being released now during the spring season, when such a new franchise can have a chance to be the pleasant surprise that it is, rather than an overly scrutinized all-or-nothing-summer release, which would barely have its opening week to perform or vanish. Feature film adaptations of comic book characters can turn out so badly, but the elements come together nicely in Hellboy, which ends up making it worth a look.

The story treads ground that while not totally new, hasn't been visited in a similar way since Raiders of the Lost Ark gave us our last big-budget adventure specimen of occult-obsessed Nazis as villains. And Hellboy cleverly finds a way to bring those villains into the present day, to free the story from the trappings of a World War II-era period piece. Hellboy (played by the only natural choice, Ron Perlman) emerges from what is presumed to be Hell as an infant demon during a satanic ritual being performed by Gregori Rasputin and his Nazi sponsors. Rescued by Allied Forces, Hellboy is raised in secret by Professor Broom (John Hurt), a scientist charged with leading a classified U.S. government agency, the B.P.R.D. (Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense), originally to combat Nazi occult operations.

The B.P.R.D. nurtures a collection of freaks and oddities that function as both a family and a sort of team, compelled to defend society clandestinely against Rasputin and the forces of Evil in the world. Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), a telepathic "Mer-Man", and Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), a troubled pyro-kinetic and love interest for Hellboy, combine their powers to prevent the entry of Evil into our realm and resist Rasputin's efforts to reclaim Hellboy and force him to bring about Armageddon.

The film does a good job of creating characters that have memorable and interesting features, with respect to their physical appearances, their powers, and their back stories. But it's selective in developing them as human characters. Hellboy is interestingly arrested at a post-adolescent, immature emotional level. He is wrought with angst and unrequited feelings for the tortured and moody firebug, Liz. The simplicity and immaturity of the love triangle is somehow charming when set against the apocalyptic powers each possess, which are personal obstacles as well as physical burdens. The villain, Kroenen, is about as badass and creepy as it gets. This Nazi freakazoid gives more than his fair share of the creeps. Clad in super-fetishy, all black leather Nazi officer's uniform attire, with black gas mask, he's almost like a Nazi Darth Vader. Twisted and evil, he's more machine now than man (sound familiar?). Having been masochistically obsessed with self-surgery in life, he's cut off his eyelids and his lips, replaced his blood and organs with mechanical parts and dust, and sewn himself silly with sutures. He's a real trip, and it works. Abe Sapien is interesting to watch in action, but underused as a character. Presumably, there could be much more to discover about him in future installments, if Hellboy is to become a sequelized franchise, which wouldn't be a bad thing, if they can keep the quality at least this high.

The only really glaring failure in the production values is the almost ridiculously phony-looking New York City setting. The story is clearly scripted in Manhattan, but the production obviously never came anywhere near NYC (or the U.S., for that matter). They tried to fake NYC in the Czech Republic and it shows. The museum exterior looked just plain wrong (starting with the fact that what is clearly a museum is named as a library), but worse yet was the bizarrely approximated San Gennaro festival which seems to put Little Italy right up the street from the Upper East Side museum area. They could have meant it to be the Village Halloween parade, since the story is set at Halloween. But that'd be just about as georgraphically confusing and incorrect, and makes it even more odd that there'd be a carousel and Ferris wheel there. But the subway scenes take the cake. A totally fictionalized and non-existent "Palmer Street" station (an obvious throw to the Executive Producer/Unit Production Manager, Patrick Palmer) jars one out of the movie with its fakeness, and the tunnels and tracks that are featured quite heavily can barely pass for Toronto, much less Manhattan. It's too bad, because even a day or two of genuine NYC shooting could have lended a significant dose of very interesting and necessary authenticity to the look and feel of Hellboy's world. For that, the movie rates a Row M "Ripped Off NYC" razzie award. But apart from that, it's very entertaining and worthwhile. Perhaps if they give it another go in a sequel, they can get some real NYC in there. After all, where else would a red misfit with filed-off devil horns like Hellboy fit in?

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