Scott Hardie: “It ruled.”
This film is the work of a fan. Director Guillermo del Toro loves Mike Mignola's comic and has struggled for six years to create an authentic film version. (He disclosed in a recent interview some of the idiotic things that studio execs suggested on the way, like making Hellboy a normal-looking dude who just happened to come from hell, or a normal-looking dude that only turns into Hellboy when he gets angry.) With the participation of Mignola as a producer, del Toro has made a film that captures the spirit and especially the characters of the comic book, and that's a worthwhile accomplishment when the source material is so rich. The nineties gave us plenty of surly anti-heroes in the same vein, but none of them are quite like the blue-collar monster exterminator Hellboy, and it's a pleasure to see him come to life at last. We have del Toro's respect and thorough understanding of the comic to thank for that. "Hellboy" may let down a few fans for a few reasons, but at least del Toro didn't take the same route Ang Lee did and try to create something alien out of the material; he recognized that it's successful and popular for a reason, and sought to preserve that on film.
Unfortunately, having a fan as the director often brings its own limitations, and chief among them is the tendency for the film not to have enough patience for the laypeople in the audience. After a fantastic prologue that introduces the villains and brings Hellboy into the world, the film does a rushed job of bringing us up to date with the character in present day and introducing his allies. We want to see the big action setpieces later, but there's no need to hurry to them; we also want to get to know these bizarre, interesting characters. Liz Sherman came across as a guest character from some other movie (there's insufficient effort made to justify her neuroses when the movie rests its chief interpersonal conflict on them), and Abe Sapien seemed somehow to get less action in the movie than he did in the trailer. Tom Manning exists as the idiotic blowhard whose only purpose is to doubt the hero at every step (call it the Dwayne T. Robinson role), and the character is annoying no matter how good Jeffrey Tambor is at playing him. The only supporting character who came across well is Professor Broom, who succeeded by virtue of being so immediately interesting anyway and because of the efforts of John Hurt and Kevin Trainor to play him that way. To put this all another way: I would have been happy to see more of Professor Broom, but I was satisfied with getting to know him as much as I did; the same is not true for the rest of the cast, including the villains.
As many critics have argued, the plot could have benefitted from more exposition. When your villain is a writhing, extradimensional mass of tentacles that will doom Earth by floating in the sky over major cities, and you are not making an anime film, you need to do a pretty good job of explaining things. Whether del Toro figured that more exposition was unnecessary or just too boring to bother, it feels like a miscalculation.
It's unfair of me to dwell on the subject of a good film not being a great one, so let me mention what else it does right. The action scenes are a treat, especially Hellboy's confrontation with the blade-twirling Kroenen. There's a rich wellspring for humor in its curmudgeonly hero, so much so that you wish his mouth had been used as often as his fists. The movie has fantastic makeup (the kind that always gets unjustly forgotten come Oscar time), and doesn't dwell on it -- there are closeups of the bizarre creatures, but never just so that we can gawk at the work. The actors are all successful in their roles, but let's face it, the casting agents deserve the praise for their triumph. (I love their choice for the uncredited voice of Abe Sapien; you should recognize it right away.) On a budget that is constrained by Hollywood standards, the sets are detailed and voluminous, and all fit a precise aesthetic that helps the film establish a feeling that we're watching scenes from another world. Finally, I loved the titular prop from del Toro's The Devil's Backbone (one of my favorite horror films) making a brief appearance.
Whether or not you should see the film depends on your threshold for idiosyncratic super-hero films that don't make a lot of effort to appeal to a mass audience. It's reminiscent of "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" in how carefully it creates its complex world and how inaccessible it winds up being as a result. (That's not to say that Hellboy should have been a normal-looking dude who just happens to come from hell, however.) If the X-Men movies were over your head, don't bother with this one. But if you're looking for something fun and off of Hollywood's well-beaten trail, or if you happen to admire Guillermo del Toro's work, this is worth your time.