Cinema Signal:

Seed of Destruction
by Mike Mignola

. "Hellboy"

The character of the superhero in this big-budget adaptation of Mike Mignola's cult comic book would seem to confirm the oft held view that we are molded by our environment. You might not expect that potential in a creature from hell, but this one responds so well to tender loving care that he throws off his birthright to perpetrate evil and throw in his lot with the good guys. Us. This superhero's destiny has a lot to do with ours.

Hellboy is our boy. Borrowing a bit from The Terminator, he turns into a protector of mankind, defending earth from the demonic ravages his universe intends to spring on us. While the T's came from the future in order to change it to our benefit, Hellboy comes from a region of dark forces that wants to destroying our world. He, in fact, is the key to that outcome, sent as the one who will unlock the passageway from which utter destruction will emanate. The actual key to the lock is part of him and the will to carry out the mission is programmed within him.

What the dark forces didn't reckon on was the nurturing effect of kind humans and, even, one with whom he could fall in love.

Young Prof. Brutenholm (Kevin Trainor), the scientist at the head of the super-secret Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, leads a platoon of World War II commandos to a high mountain redoubt in Scotland where a team of Nazis, in league with resurrected, super-empowered Russian Grigori Rasputin (Karel Roden), are about to use a "Hell-Hole Generator" open a window to another universe in order to transport Ogdru Jahad (Seven Gods of Chaos) who will join the Nazis in ruling life on earth.

When our soldiers engage the jack-booted troops, they manage to close the hole, but not before a creature passes through to our side. It's smallish, red in color, has a stone hand on one arm, looks cuddly, and responds to a couple of candy bars with anxious gusto. This is infant Hellboy.

The good doctor takes charge of him as a parent and, some 60 years later, when Hellboy is more Hell-man, grown up, cigar-smoking and, as realized by Ron Perlman and crafty body prosthetics left over and re-dyed red from "The Hulk," very mighty. He's also a guy whom the Professor (John Hurt) can't let loose on his own because of the mischief he creates. But, he's a weapon extraodinaire when bad guys like Rasputin and his tentacled monsters rise up again from their supernatural pit.

Helping Hellboy in these exploits with extra-sensory perception is fishboy Abe Sapien, a smooth character who lives in water or air with equal comfort and who can echo-locate through rock walls, read minds, see into the future and whatever, as handy a superhero companion as there could be--except that this C-3PO derivative from Star Wars appears to spring up from no discernable story source, much as Dr. Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor) who seems to be present as little more than a continuing annoyance.

Demonstrating the totality of Hellboy's transition to the human side is his abject and unrequited love for Liz Sheridan (Selma Blair), a sullenly beautiful lady who may not be as human as she appears. Her power to muster blue flames as though her mind is a pilot light in a stove clearly puts her in a category all her own and in an institution to deal with the depressions caused by the uncontrollability of her gift. "I hate being called a firestarter," she complains. Be that as it may, and coming in handy when writer-director Guillermo del Toro needs to pull it out against the enemy, she was ostensibly raised with Hellboy and seems to have a sisterly affection for the poor giant. This leaves her emotional side open to respond to the attentions of FBI agent John Myers (Rupert Evans), creating a love triangle and breaking Hellboy's heart. (By this time there's no doubting that he has one).

Until the last few frames, that is. [Possible spoiler: skip this paragraph if you haven't seen the film] After the havoc of the CGI effects turn to straight photography, the picture ends with an embrace between Hellboy and Liz that appears to suggest that she's fallen in love with him and spurned Evans. It smacks of sequel teaser material to me, and my money's on Hellboy, in the inevitable next installment, to play the good guy to the max and accept her more natural inclination for a home boy. But, what a note to play at the finale.

Which demonstrates something about Del Toro's sensibilities in depicting human relationships. He's got the action part down pat, he even comes up with moments of poetic poignancy and humor, but his prior work (vampire device in "Cronos"; giant cockroach in "Mimic", and the technically accomplished but superficial "Blade 2") can be said to be emotion-challenged. He tried to correct that in this big budget spectacular but the clarity of his emotional line is foggy at best and leaves you with a feeling of imbalance, if not confusion. But then, a devoted reader of the comic strip could probably explain it to me.

In this latest collaboration with Del Toro, Ron Perlman may have found his best role to date. He seems to be made for the part, delivering believable physical action along with adroit humor of the crack-up variety. His annoyance and disdain for the ever attacking creatures and for the pain they inflict on him is a unique note for the character. John Hurt is all the part of the concerned, doting professor calls for; and Evans is totally appropriate as the eager all-American FBI agent in love. Most impressive as a warm object for our heros' affections is the attractive modesty of Selma Blair. Her moments on screen are almost scene-stealing, which could be indicative of the sheer need for escape from the pervasive combat action that she so sensually provides.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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