You can sum up director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy, both the movie and its eponymous hero, in one splendid image. Bashing his way through a subway station, the only begotten adolescent son of Satan — adopted by humans and raised to fight evil — saves yet another screeching mob of terrified citizens. With one hand he swings a large and loathsome monster around his head by its 15-foot tongue (“First date! No tongues!”), while with the other he ever so gently picks up a box of tiny kittens and, his doleful eyes soulfully ablaze, hands them over to the little girl who lost them. A more deftly pitched juxtaposition of chocolate-box kitsch and chest-beating comic-book gothic would be hard to imagine. It encapsulates the harmony of virtues that makes Hellboy one of the sturdier superhero movies of the last couple of years, with monsters and effects and diabolical baddies to spare, a heart as big as a house and a love story that actually gets its hooks in you.
It also has Ron Perlman, del Toro’s flint-eyed De Niro, in the title role. You may not recognize him here, with his overhanging cranial lobe, his giant left arm made of stone, and skin the sun-red color of curry powder, but believe me, you know Ron Perlman. A regular in the Mexico-born del Toro’s work (indeed, Hellboy was written for the actor), and blessed with a profile that might well have made John Merrick flinch, Perlman always shows up when directors need a visage that will startle, not soothe. His simian jawline and reptile eyes have adorned projects from The Name of the Rose to City of Lost Children to del Toro’s own Cronos and Blade II, and his sand-and-glue bark has made him a second fortune in voice-over work. In Hellboy, we get to see what he can do behind a ton of latex.
We first meet Hellboy in 1944 when he’s summoned up from the infernal depths by the resurrected mad monk Grigori Rasputin, who intends to use Satan’s offspring in Hitler’s secret occult weapons-research project. Happily, the allies have established their own Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, which, bossed by young Professor Trevor “Broom” Bruttenholm and following a dose of effects pyrotechnics and a spot of Nazi-frying, assumes custody of the infant devil. Del Toro impishly shows Broom’s band-of-brothers platoon posing for a group photo, 10 sepia soldiers around their scarlet, horned prize, as if mugging with some USO cutie.
Cut to 60 years later. Hellboy ages in devil-dog years, so he’s really just a teenager now, adopted by Broom (now played by John Hurt, looking unnervingly like Leon Trotsky), and grounded. Sitting around his lab-annex pad eating pizza, guzzling beer and glumly filing his stumps with a belt sander (he wants to fit in!), Hellboy misses his girl, Liz (Selma Blair), a somber telekinetic fire starter presently residing in a padded cell. Worse, Hellboy’s new partner, well-scrubbed FBI agent John Myers (Rupert Evans), is carrying his own torch for Liz. Hellboy’s hide may be fireproof, but not his teenage heart.
Del Toro knows his vintage monster movies inside out. Hellboy is perpetually enriched by sly nods to the deep roots of the Beauty and the Beast myth: Jean Marais as the noble-hearted warthog in Louis Quinze threads; the bell ringer and Esmeralda; the Frankenstein monster pining for his bride. And when evildoers call, grandiosely, for “salt gathered from the tears of a thousand angels!” or declaim “The eclipse has begun!,” you search the screen for the fugitive specters of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Although packed with del Toro’s special brand of startling imagery — slimy piles of monster eggs, a funeral under black umbrellas and leaden skies, bleak snowscapes and spike-filled pits — and knee-deep in more-than-satisfactory special effects, his movie works as well as it does thanks to the aching conviction of its love story and the angst of its teenage soul. Perlman’s gruff romanticism dovetails perfectly with Blair’s spacey innocence — perhaps only Phil Spector could adequately hymn their hormonal amours — and they are the engine that powers Hellboy to places out of the ordinary.
Where Hellboy is a comic book made flesh, Shaolin Soccer is a live-action comedy that feels like a cartoon. Written, directed by and starring Stephen Chow (who’s been called, for whatever it’s worth, the Jim Carrey of Hong Kong), the movie has a rambunctious and likable energy that compensates for its unsteady, only intermittently amusing narrative. Miramax has sat on it for a couple of years, hacking and reassembling it to the chairman’s presumed satisfaction, and the version that emerges — subtitled, and at something like its original length — has the good-natured, lowbrow appeal of many U.S. teen comedies: stunts, effects, laffs, and gross-outs. A familiar recipe.
Built around a motley soccer team of down-on-their-luck former Shaolin monks, the movie does best on the playing field, where the monks’ special abilities destroy all challengers. They can kick the ball into the stratosphere; the goalie’s like a moving wall; the ball burns through the air, lifting the turf from the pitch and hurling other players like ninepins. And the only team that can beat them — named, appropriately enough, Team Evil — is dosed up with thermonuclear amphetamines. But if the ball-based special effects and the wire and stunt work are adorably cheesy, the off-the-playing field comedy fares less well, residing as it does somewhere east of Bruce Almighty.