Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action Violence and Frightening Images
Directed by: Guillermo Del Toro
Written by: Guillermo Del Toro
(based on the HELLBOY comics by Mike Mignola)
Starring: Ron Perlman, John Hurt, Selma Blair, Rupert Evans, Karel Roden, Jeffrey Tambor, Doug Jones, David Hyde Pierce, Brian Steele, Ladislav Beran & Bridget Hodson
The early 2000’s weren’t necessarily a good time for superhero flicks. There were a few exceptions (two X-MEN films and two SPIDER-MAN installments), but for the most part, filmmakers tried too hard to be cool, slick and edgy while pretty much attempting to turn every big superhero into their own franchise…most of which failed miserably. HELLBOY looked to be yet another one of these mediocre comic book movies and didn’t quite attract a huge crowd of filmgoers as a result. Luckily, the film eventually found its audience and garnered enough attention to warrant an outstanding sequel, but this review isn’t of HELLBOY II. It’s of 2004’s HELLBOY (adapted from Dark Horse comics). Skillfully directed by Guillermo Del Toro (in one of his early breaks into mainstream American cinema), HELLBOY is a rockin good time boosted by creepy visuals, tons of creativity, and a sense of humor that embraces the premise’s goofiness instead of flat-out ignoring it.
The film begins in 1944. Nazis are using insane methods to fight the war. These methods include supernatural forces, otherworldly dimensions, and undead mystics. Luckily, an attempt to unleash Lovecraftian monsters fails and the evil Rasputin (yes, that Rasputin) is killed. Something made its way into our world though: a young demon with a rocky right hand. He’s adopted by a paranormal investigator and grows to become the monster-hunter known as Hellboy. In 2004, the timid John Myers is hired by the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense to be Hellboy’s caretaker. Little do Hellboy, John, or any of the BPRD members (including an aquatic psychic and a pyrokinetic) know that Rasputin has been resurrected and intends on using Hellboy to successfully bring Lovecraftian monsters to our world. Our lives are in danger and the one person that can save them is a demon.
HELLBOY is a gorgeous-looking film. Guillermo Del Toro was no stranger to filmmaking by 2004 (creating CRONOS, MIMIC and THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE) and lets his creativity shine behind the camera. With a budget of just over 60 million, HELLBOY looks better than most of our modern superhero movies. There’s a slick visual style and attention to detail brings every scene to life. You could pause any frame of this movie and spend a minute studying every detail about that still frame. It’s downright (for lack of a better word) cool. The creativity isn’t just in the visuals as Guillermo Del Toro was clearly having a blast in adapting the comics to the screen. The movie is fast-paced, confident, but not afraid to embrace the goofy cheese that comes with material like this. Even though it has a sense of humor, the movie isn’t too jokey though. That’s a tough tightrope to walk.
The cast is great, with two exceptions. Ron Perlman is perfect as Hellboy. Though he’s wearing make-up and horns, Perlman sort of has the look that you’d expect Hellboy to have. He has that appearance even without the make-up and nails down the mannerisms of a witty, horned superhero in a way that’s rarely captured in superhero movies. Meanwhile, Selma Blair shines as the emotionally damaged pyrokinetic Liz. For my money, Liz is the best role that Blair has ever had. Karel Roden is great as Rasputin, yes that historical Rasputin, while John Hurt is well cast as Hellboy’s “father.” Doug Jones and the voice talents of David Hyde Pierce are combined to bring Abe Sapien (the psychic fish guy) to life. On the other side of the coin, Rupert Evans is utterly bland as the clean-cut FBI agent. He hadn’t starred in many movies before HELLBOY and hasn’t been in many since. This is probably for a reason. His delivery is unbelievably wooden. It’s a good thing that he’s not a big player in this movie and more of a background character. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Tambor is hit-or-miss as FBI Director Tom Manning. He has a couple of solid scenes, but does get over-the-top.
Besides being creative and mostly well acted, HELLBOY greatly benefits from a terrifically creepy atmosphere too. The special effects are top-notch and incorporated into their environments with care. The decision to keep this relatively dark for a PG-13 was a ballsy one and there are a couple of images in this film that could potentially be nightmare fuel for young kids. These mainly include shots of giant tentacled beasties and a dual-sword wielding surgery addict (who unmasked has no lips or eyelids).
Brimming with imagination, great effects, (mostly) good performances, and a tone that manages to be jokey, creepy and cool at the same time, HELLBOY really is among the top-tier of superhero films from the early 2000’s. Though it’s definitely an unconventional superhero flick, it’s made all the better for it. Lucky for fans, the film eventually garnered its audience (I remember watching this on DVD a whole lot) and got enough popularity to warrant HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY (a sequel that manages to be even better than this first installment) as well as rumors of a third movie in the works. In this current situation where Marvel and DC are dominating movie theaters, 2004’s HELLBOY is a movie that deserves far more credit than it gets.