(PG-13) 4 stars A toast to character actors! They flesh out and enrich stories with their presence. They add a vital sense of verisimilitude with their ability to make even the most outrageous character feel authentic. They frequently save films saddled with lead actors who are pretty but vapid. And once in a while, in a movie that requires their unique abilities, one of them actually gets to be the star of the show. -Ron Perlman as ‘Hellboy’: Beauty and the, uh, beast.- Veteran character actor Ron Perlman got a shot back in the ’80s, when he co-starred with Linda Hamilton in the TV series Beauty and the Beast. Buried under makeup, heavy clothing and a great amount of hair, he set millions of hearts aflutter with his heroic actions, gentlemanly behavior, romantic speeches and outsider angst. After the series ran its course, he returned to the character actor pool, appearing in an amazing number of movies and TV shows.
Perlman gets another shot at the central spotlight in the supernatural superhero flick Hellboy, and he turns in a knockout performance as a cigar-chomping, red-skinned, horned badass who is really just an overgrown kid. Perlman whips off one-liners as adroitly as a veteran comic, but also displays the pains and insecurities of the big lug. He’s terrific. While none of the other good guys are quite as fully fleshed out, the actors playing them add enough of their own humanity to make it easy to relate to their quandaries. Thankfully, filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (Blade II, The Devil’s Backbone, Mimic, Chronos) understands that, no matter how lavish the special effects or well-choreographed the action scenes, superhero movies only work if you care about the people beneath the heroics.
Clearly, del Toro and company studied other genre films. Hellboy has echoes of many other movies, notably X-Men, The X-Files, Men in Black and Raiders of the Lost Ark. But the creative team keeps the production from seeming overly derivative with snappy pacing and lots of witty banter.
The film, based on a Dark Horse comic book series by Mike Mignola that I’ve seen, but never read, opens in 1944 Scotland, where the fast-fading Nazis have hired mad monk Grigori Rasputin (Karel Roden) to open a portal that will bring to earth a creature with the ability to trigger the apocalypse. Oh, those wacky Nazis. Luckily, the cavalry — in this case U.S. soldiers — arrives and snatches away the little critter, who is named Hellboy and raised as a son by Professor Broom (John Hurt), founder of the top secret Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense.
Cut to the present, where Hellboy (Perlman) is all grown up and fighting evil. Giant-sized, with a devilish tail and a huge rocklike right fist, Hellboy keeps his horns sanded down, in an effort to look “normal.” Kudos to the makeup department for their ace work transforming Perlman, and check out his face — maybe it’s just me, but in makeup, don’t you think Perlman is a dead ringer for beloved character actor John Schuck, best known as Capt. Walter “Painless Pole” Waldoski in the original film version of M*A*S*H?
But I digress.
FBI agent John Myers (Rupert Evans) gets assigned to the “nanny squad” that watches over Professor Broom and his team. Said team includes Abe Simian (Indianapolis’ own Doug Jones — check these pages for an interview with him in a week or two), a hybrid of man and fish with limited psychic abilities, and Liz Sheridan (Selma Blair), a young woman struggling to control her ability to mentally create fire. Agent Myers’ rapport with Liz shakes up Hellboy, who has long nurtured a crush on her, and leads to a great mid-film sequence where the giant follows the pair when they go out on what he perceives as a date. Though the film is packed with thunderous, well-staged action scenes, this portion of the movie is the best, with gorgeous art direction, cinematography and music supporting very entertaining exchanges between John, Liz, Hellboy and a neighborhood kid.
But the fighting’s what the crowds want and there is plenty, from verbal sparring between FBI agent Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor) to mega-battles between the heroes and Sammael (Brian Steele), a resurrection monster, and Kroenen (Ladislav Beran), an ex-human turning into a killing machine.
The struggles to save the world are entertaining, but the big appeal of Hellboy is the humor and humanity of the characters. When you see a production as technically adept as this and leave the theater primarily remember things the people said and the expressions on their faces, you know that the filmmakers got it right.