Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Aw, Crap: Hellboy and Hellboy II

| by Justin Thomas |

Raditude and porn are similar. I don’t know how to define either but I know them when I see them, and I know Ron Perlman doesn’t have raditude. Before 2004, I would have said he didn’t have the chops to anchor a $66 million picture, but then Hellboy hit the screens and I have to admit I completely underestimated the raditude-free actor.

How in the world did Hellboy get made with Ron Perlman heading the cast? Who in their right mind thought Ron Perlman would be strong enough to make back the budget and provide some sort of profit? Is Hellboy evidence that people go to see movies, not stars, or is it evidence adapting a property virtually guarantees success of the property even though there are examples where mining comic books failed? Is it evidence everyone involved slightly lost their mind and from the insanity came a movie worth watching? Or am I way over thinking Hellboy and Hellboy II: The Golden Army?

It might sound ridiculous but there is courage in how Hellboy made it to the screen. It’s a weird property and one with a narrow target; I just don’t see much in there for fourteen-year-old girls. It has a cast completely free of A and maybe B list actors. It was directed by a director known in certain circles but by no means a household name. Did I mention it stars Ron Perlman? Somehow this seemingly standard Hollywood practice of adapting properties with only known audiences also shows what can happen when risks get taken.

Perlman, under all that makeup and costume, not only brings a character to life but gives a compelling performance in the process. Hellboy doesn’t fit in but wants to when we meet him in the first film and by the end of Hellboy II he’s decided to stay with the freaks. The man-boy nature of Hellboy comes through it all and that’s the strength of Perlman as an actor. Does he pull off Hellboy so well because he can identify with being not normal in appearance? Is Perlman actually a freak who ages emotionally at a much slower rate than normal people? I don’t think that’s the case but he connected with something in the character. Hellboy is a difficult character to pull off convincingly but Perlman does and his performance is proof movies can exist, even higher-cost adaptations, with someone other than Nic Cage as the lead.

What would Hellboy II be if Guillermo del Toro hadn’t made Pan’s Labyrinth between the two movies? Hellboy II has such a different feel, it’s far more grounded in fantasy than Hellboy, and I can’t watch it and not think, “This is del Toro completely unleashed and, if nothing, else it’s visually interesting.” Hellboy is more for the fans; there are elements of other geek films in it and some of those elements feel like nods to the audience. The entire opening sequence is there for geeks to geek out about. Hellboy II feels more like an examination of the collision of the natural world versus the technological and self-identification, which I wouldn’t anticipate from a movie with the word 'Hellboy' in the title.

While he utilizes CGI, del Toro doesn’t completely walk away from the world of practical effects, and while both are noticeable, I don’t think of them as “CGI movies” or “old-fashioned effects movies.” It’s a good blend of both techniques and utilizing practical effects kept the CGI from being overbearing. The blending isn’t seamless but it’s a lot better than other films. When Professor Broom tells the young Hellboy his story about the Golden Army, the young Hellboy is clearly just a person in makeup. The movements of the mouth aren’t overly convincing but they aren’t overly convincing with Yoda in Empire, either. Would CGI have been able to precisely replicate what a demon’s mouth looks like when a demon speaks? Probably, but I appreciate del Toro’s use of people in actual costumes when others might animate the character entirely because it feels more real.

These aren’t great movies. They’re fun and probably a little disposable, but they also aren’t a run-of-the-mill execution of a comic adaptation. Even with something as safe as going the adaptation route, risks can still be made. Courageous filmmakers can still execute some sort of vision and not fall prey to the big explosions, big CGI, big box office mandates from the dudes worried about shareholders more than character development. If the Original Idea is as dead as it appears to be, at least let people who can execute an unoriginal idea interestingly have a film or two. It has worked with Hellboy so far.

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