While some good directors never quite "get it," it took Guillermo Del Toro only one misfire -- the icky, slow-paced "Blade 2" -- to get the whole comic-book adaptation thing right.
In fact, just about everything is right with "Hellboy" -- Del Toro crafted an action blockbuster with a grimy, slimy cult-movie feel and a quirky sense of humor. It's graced with excellent acting, spectacular action scenes, and the trappings of clockpunk and Lovecraftian horror -- not to mention that it stars a six-foot-tall scarlet demon with a soft spot for kittens.
In 1944, young Professor Broom accompanied an army regiment to a remote Scottish island, where the Nazis -- led by Rasputin -- were about to open a portal to another world, and allow the vast tentacled Ogru Jahad (Seven Gods of Chaos) to enter our world. Rasputin and the Nazis were destroyed, but something came through the portal -- a baby demon, whom Broom names Hellboy.
Fast-forward sixty years -- a grown Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and his fishy friend Abe (Doug Jones) are working at a paranormal government agency that specializes in policing the supernatural, with the weirded-out Agent Myers (Rupert Evans) just joining the team. Soon afterwards, Hellboy is called on to kill Sammael the Hellhound -- but it turns out that Sammael can replicate himself indefinitely.
As Hellboy and his team try to hunt down the remaining Sammaels, the dying Professor Broom (John Hurt) finds that a revived Rasputin and his immortal Nazi followers have orchestrated all this. And Rasputin is continuing to pull the strings behind the scenes -- including using Hellboy's love Liz (Selma Blair), a depressed pyrokinetic. And when Hellboy suffers a devastating loss, his journey will take him right back to his roots -- and the potential destruction of the world.
Watching "Hellboy," it's easy to see how Guillermo Del Toro because world-famous for the exquisitely dark "Pan's Labyrinth," and why he's been chosen to direct the forthcoming "Hobbit" movies. This adaptation could have just been another paint-by-numbers comic-book story, but Del Toro gives it the kind of grime, quirk, brains and heart that a lasting cult movie should have.
Part of that cult appeal is "Hellboy's" distinctive look, with Lovecraftian tentacle-gods and some steampunky details. And the action scenes are pretty spectacular -- trains, slimy hellhounds, sword-swinging Nazis with chopped-up faces, giant clock cogs, and a fiery explosion in a mental asylum. And there are some truly spectacular action scenes in a vast underground labyrinth, full of ancient hammers and collapsing bridges. There's just enough action and grossness, without going overboard.
But Del Toro is able to balance out the action with some truly touching moments, such as the aged Broom's final scenes in his firelit study. And there's a lot of dark humor here as well -- and not all of it is Hellboy's dry one-liners. The movie is liberally peppered with dark humor moments ("1945, you mean. Hitler died in '45." "DID he now?"), including some hilariously macabre scenes involving a bad-tempered Russian zombie ("This is Ivan Klimatovich. Say hi, Ivan." "Go that way, Red Monkey!").
Most importantly, Del Toro is able to give his characters little human quirks -- hair plugs, love of cats, and Hellboy sanding down his horns in the morning. Perlman is simply amazing as "Red," whose gruff scarlet exterior hides a kindly, affectionate heart. Not many actors could emote through that many prosthetics (including a very lifelike tail), but Perlman makes it look natural.
Though he's playing a ninetyish old professor, Hurt plays his role with a quiet, powerful sense of goodness. Jones and Evans also do excellent jobs, one as an erudite psychic fish-man ("We lead a charmed life," he observes as cockroaches skitter around him) and an earnest young agent. Selma Blair is the one downside -- she sort of mumbles in a monotone most of the time.
"Hellboy" is one of the best comic-book adaptations that Hollywood has turned out, primarily because of the darker, eerier aesthetic Guillermo Del Toro brings to it. Definitely a must-see.