It's easy to spot the appeal of Spider-Man or Batman. Geeky teenager and wounded vigilante respectively, crossed over with various creepy crawlies. Even lesser superheroes like DareDevil can have their own niche appeal because of their disabilities. But where does Hellboy, a huge red-skinned demon with snapped of horns and a concrete hand come into it? Who the hell wants to see a film about that?Hellboy came into being at the backend of WW2 after the Nazis tried to open a gateway into another universe to let loose all manner of beasties on their side. They were stopped right at the last by a group of Allied soldiers lead by a scientist Bruttenholm (John Hurt). Before the portal was destroyed however, something was left behind. Hellboy. Bruttenhom takes him under his wing and fast-forward to the present day where Bruttenholm has an adult Hellboy (Ron Perlman) working alongside several other demons or freaks of nature such as fishman Abe Sapien (David Hyde Pierce) and pyrokinetic Liz Sherman (Selma Blair). Newly co-opted into this supernatural crime-fighting agency (kind of like an extreme X-Men) is regular human Myers (Rupert Evans), to act as an aide/keeper to Hellboy who has passed down into an urban myth. It seems that the Nazis are back and trying to reopen the portal under the orders of a seemingly immortal Rasputin (Karel Roden) and a clockwork assassin.
If all this sounds like a lot to take in, it is which is why Hellboy at times threatens to turn into a cross between 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' and 'Underworld'. It's filled with larger-than-life freaks with only vague explanations as to their backgrounds and histories, and the dialogue frequently falls into mumbo-jumbo about 'portals' 'gateways' and 'reliquaries' without actually making anything clear. And then add to that a climax featuring a huge multi-tentacled CGI beastie ('Deep Rising' anyone?) and you have what could have been something utterly awful.
It isn't however, largely due to two men: Guillermo Del Toro and Ron Perlman. Del Toro certainly has an eye for an action sequence as just when 'Hellboy' threatens to derail itself with an incomprehensible plot and bizzare characters, up pops a crunching action sequence that ranks with the best of Spider-Man, such as a couple of scraps with some tentacled demons in a subway station and the submerged tunnels.
Del Toro also presents us with some concepts that dazzle the eye and fire the imagination. There's a brief but chilling view of the Earth if the Nazis succeed, and although the origins of the clockwork assassin are never explained, it can't be denied that he's a better creation than a thousand CGI tentacles.
And then there's Perlman, turning in one of the most outlandish, yet human superheroes for quite some time. He holds his own in the fights and spits out Hellboy's blue-collar put-downs with relish. He approaches his job vanquishing ghouls and goblins like a bad tempered mechanic approaching a spluttering exhaust. And then there's the oddly touching and endearing human strokes he points Hellboy with. He mopes around like a love-sick teenager around Liz and rubs up against Bruttenholm like a moody teenager, steals beer with his tail and throws tantrums. Thankfully Perlman sells Hellboy totally, which is no mean feat. He more than makes up for the bland Blair and Evans and lack of dramatic power behind the villains.I may not have totally understood the vagaries and intricacies of 'Hellboy', but I know I enjoyed it, albeit with reservations. Whether the legend and background of Hellboy has got enough to warrant a sequel can only be addressed in 2006, but for the meantime we have an imaginative and ever so surreal starter to enjoy. It's no 'Spider-Man' but it's no 'DareDevil either', it's certainly flawed but undeniably fun.