Some superheroes focus on settling a score. Some learn lessons about responsibility, talent, and weakness. But for some, like Hellboy, being a superhero is just a job.
For director Guillermo Del Toro, the job of bringing the comic book hero Hellboy to the screen was a labor of love—love for comics, and especially for the work of artist Mike Mignola, Hellboy's creator. Del Toro effectively recreates Mignola's flair for shadows and big, bulky imagery. This is a comic book world quite unlike any we've seen before.
We get to know Hellboy through the eyes of John Myers (Rupert Evans), an FBI agent who has been transferred to the mysterious Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense. He's welcomed there by a wizened geezer named Professor Bruttenholm (Alien's John Hurt in fine form). Bruttenholm shows him around this secret government freakshow, assuring him, "There are things that go bump in the night." Hellboy, the Bureau's most notorious weapon, is the biggest bumper of all.
This massive, red-skinned, horned devil from hell—the most disgruntled comic book hero to reach the big screen since Harvey Pekar—has abandoned the evil powers that spawned him. He's hard at work as a secret weapon for the Bureau. In his spare time, he consumes mass quantities of meat and carbs, plays with his collection of kittens, and lifts weights. When called upon, he pursues and destroys monsters and supernatural bad guys with an air of obligation, indifference, and sarcasm. Superman said, "Up, up and away!" Hellboy says, "Aw, crap." Saving the world is a chore, but he gets it done.
Speaking of chores, if Hollywood keeps turning out comic book movies at this rate, it is going to become tedious. The thrill of CGI special effects is wearing off. Filmmakers face the formidable task of delivering something original and compelling, something more than just violence, explosions and revenge stories. X-Men and its sequel passed the test with flying colors, offering style and substance. Spider-Man delivered the goods. Hulk was artful, but its finale was awful. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen flunked. Daredevil was a dud.
Here's the good news: Hellboy and his gilled, web-footed sidekick Abe Sapien are spectacular. They're two of the most remarkably realized comic characters ever to reach the screen.
There is no better actor under heavy prosthetics than Ron Perlman; he's made a career of it (TV's "Beauty and the Beast," Star Trek: Nemesis, The Island of Doctor Moreau). He's always deserved a movie of his own. Hellboy is his big chance, and he's brilliant. He is completely convincing as this not-so-jolly red giant, perfectly comfortable performing acrobatic stunts under tons of latex and paint. And he doesn't over-play the comedy—he under-plays it beautifully. He's a lonely, soft-hearted, alienated child who bashes his way through to the bad guys and hits them like a ton of bricks.
His equally compelling sidekick, Abe Sapien, is a "mer-man." Doug Jones brings this amphibious psychic with graceful physicality, but the voice is perfectly pitched by David Hyde Pierce (Niles from TV's Frasier). You'll believe a man can gill-breathe.