Hellboy begins with a giant statue of a crucifix in
the background, somewhere in the middle of Scotland toward
the end of the Second World War. Professor Broom is asked
by a soldier, "Are you a Catholic?", to which Broom
responds, "Yes, among other things." The Nazis are
trying to open a portal to Hell, which will unleash demons
on the Earth. The Nazis are led, of course, by a knife-weilding
cyborg--who also happens to be a subordinate of Rasputin,
described as a "cultural advisor to the Romanovs".
The Allied soldiers manage to blow up the Nazis' hell portal,
but a little demon spawn slips through. He is cornered by
the soldiers, but the professor woos him with candy; the relationship
is described as an "unready father for an unwanted child."
Hellboy, as he's nicknamed by the troops, is adopoted into
an underground lair to keep the outside world away from him.
Grown up, he still wears his Catholic jewerly, but he's also
a crime-fighter (sporting a "Good Samaratin" handgun
of enormous caliber) who kills in the name of good.
Guillermo del Toro, directing his own screenplay, seems to
have set up Hellboy as an embodiment of the division between
traditional Catholicism and Kennedy-esque modern Catholicism.
When Kennedy told the nation he would not bring his religious
values into his governance of the country, he
ushered in a sort-of secular Catholicism, one in which
the church skirted the "too Catholic" issue by standing
firm on the separation of church and state. This doctrine
has allowed the Catholic hierarchy, and indeed many of its
voters, to support liberal policies like homosexual and abortion
rights by essentially saying that they're
state and not religious matters. Hellboy cherishes
his father's cross necklace, but is himself unpracticing,
though he serves the common good. He's like a young, liberal
Catholic who respects the discipline upbringing but does not
adhere to the whole dogma.
Hellboy is sort of a Denis Leary Catholic--brought up Catholic,
but now snarls a lot, tromps around in a grungy coat, and
chomps on tobacco products continuously. Ron Perlman's Hellboy
is cocky (we first see him curling enormous dumbells), strutting
around the secret lair, nonchalantly announcing "Let's
go kill some monsters." Hellboy's personality is that
of a twenty-first century Maxim slacker: He downs Red
Bull, works out, is self-conscious about his appearance (he
sands down his horns to fit in better) and is of modest intelligence
with a lack of curiousity about the world. Hellboy transcends
his testostorized existence by having a soft heart, especially
for his crush, Liz (Selma Blair), the fire-starter who was
raised with him in the secret lair. Blair has huge bags under
her eyes, spending her time in a mental institution to keep
her spontaneous combustions under control. John Myers is the
neophyte charged with raising Hellboy, so he cultivates a
relationship with her--though his motivations are unclear.
As is the rest of del Toro's movie. The plot is one of those
confusing action movie plots in which you're never quite sure
what supernatural occurence is connected with what supernatural
occurence, and so the action just melds together for about
an hour. We know who the good guys are, who the bad guys are,
and that sustains us. Jeffrey Tambor plays the pompous bureaucrat
who gets comeuppance in the lead-up to the climax, which is
fine, but del Toro doesn't arrange the elements of the movie
to make clear what he's trying to say. The problem is that
del Toro sets up all these interesting elements that could
give his comic adaptation depth, but he lets it all go in
favor of straight action. This isn't to say that the action
isn't fun, but the film really doesn't have much to say about
the religion it uses as a prop.
Compare to the X-Men movies, which are great fun,
but also have an agenda--setting up Magneto and Professor
Xavier as Malcolm X/Martin Luther King counterparts in the
struggle for leading an oppressed race, or the anti-Patriot
Act themes of the second film. Singer's movies are both exhilerating
and thoughtful--all we can ask for from summer blockbusters.
Del Toro's Hellboy, on the other hand, is all promise
and no follow-through. Why name the amphibious mind reader
an "Abe-sapien" after Abraham Lincoln and then not
explain the connection? Or bring Rasputin into the mix and
not describe how his black magic is a threat to American freedom,
which Hellboy swears to protect? And why adorn your movie
with crucifixes, and then tug at our heart strings with a
dead father's cross necklace, without following through on
the religious idea at stake here? Had del Toro worked all
this out, we'd have plenty of intriguing material for a franchise
worth the time of the discriminating pop culture audience.
As it stands, Ron Perlman's performance as the Maxim-sensitive
demon spawn is worth seeing once.