In the last days of WWII, desperate to change the course of the war, occult Nazis open a portal to hell; this is a classic occult Nazi tactic that will doubtless be familiar to you. Although US special forces eventually manage to close the portal before reality itself is unwritten, something still manages to come through.
That something is a juvenile demon, named “Hellboy” by the remaining allied troops. Initially intended to be a world-ending weapon for the Third Reich, the baby monster is instead adopted by a scientist and taken to the US. Years pass, and the demon becomes a vital asset to humanity, fighting monsters as part of the BPRD (Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defence).
In 2004, occult Nazis are nothing but a distant memory, except – surprise! – they’re all still alive and now they’re back to open a new portal to hell and unleash chaos. Hellboy’s attempts to stop them are hampered by both his complicated personal life and the way that everything he does plays right into their hands.
The first time I saw this film, I didn’t really care for it. However, since then, my opinion has softened. I’ve come back to it a couple of times, and while I still don’t think it is a particularly good film, I absolutely would recommend it as a fun one. It’s got flaws (quite a lot of them), but all things considered, it’s a watchable action film. Every so often, I just want to watch a couple of hours of mindless monster-hunting.
There’s a ragtag team of misfits (Hellboy, a pyrokinetic love interest, a psychic black-lagoon thing, and a stuffed-shirt FBI agent). Slobbering monsters, cryptic sigils and oddly-functional traps abound. A lot of effort has been put into the monster design and I am all for that – the most effective antagonist is a clockwork half-machine Nazi who can overclock himself to deflect bullets, closely followed by a duplicating aquatic skull-pig. Rasputin is behind the whole thing, because of course he is. My favourite thing about urban fantasy is always the profusion and variety of horrors, and Hellboy has a whole bunch of exciting things.
I have a lot of time for Ron Perlman generally, and he is bizarrely well-cast as Hellboy here; Just like J. K. Simmonds in the Spiderman films as J. Jonah Jameson, the actor fits almost perfectly into the character. I don’t especially care for the character – Hellboy is a hero in the American action film style that I struggle to connect with, someone who solves problems with punching and a lack of curiousity – but given that the eponymous character has to feature, this is about the best Hellboy that could have been expected.
The plot is elaborate, but confused. Certain scenes and decisions don’t really make that much sense or hang together too well. How is there a vast underground city underneath Moscow without anyone noticing? Why would a Russian mystic leading German soldiers choose to open a portal in Scotland, rather than somewhere more accessible? Hellboy wants to have all of the fun elements – timely eclipses, hidden mazes, ancient prophecies – but rarely puts in the work to justify them, so you have to recalculate the importance of a particular event or item when people react to it as though it had been foreshadowed effectively.
The film focuses a lot on the interpersonal aspects – Hellboy argues a lot with his adopted father, with his FBI-assigned buddy, with his potential girlfriend. Given how much focus and time is spent on these aspects, more depth and variety would have been good. The non-monster-hunting sections end up feeling like filler, rather than supporting and propelling the narrative, simply because nothing gets resolved; characters are either being tiresomely reasonable or sulking, with nothing in between. Instead of adding depth to the narrative, it gets in the way.
Hellboy‘s failures are because it tries to do too much – to jam rapid changes in action & setting into a film that was overloaded with relationships already; insufficient time is given to the real draws of this kind of film: horrible monsters and the over-engineered weapons used against them. When terrified agents are hunted through the sewers, or horrors awake in the brittle coldness of the outer dimensions, then everything starts to pick up; unfortunately, those scenes are not as frequent as I’d like.
As above, this is not a perfect film. It is not even a particularly well-made one. But it is fun, and it is something that – I find – can be watched multiple times without becoming too tedious. You do have to slog through all the bits that don’t really need to be there, but the core of the film is sometimes exactly what I want to watch.