Directed by: Guillermo del Toro || Produced by: Lawrence Gordon, Mike Richardson, Lloyd Levin
Screenplay by: Guillermo del Toro || Starring: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Jeffrey Tambor, Karel Roden, Rupert Evans, John Hurt, Doug Jones, David Hyde Pierce, Brian Steel, Ladislav Beran, Bridget Hodson, Corey Johnson, Kevin Trainor
Music by: Marco Beltrami || Cinematography: Guillermo Navarro || Edited by: Peter Amundson || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 122 minutes
Guillermo del Toro is one of the most identifiable and beloved auteurs working today, no matter which sector of filmmaking culture you sample. General and international audiences love his blockbusters and Spanish-language genre films, cinephiles adore his commitment to Gothic pulp and fantasy while balancing practical FX with CGI, and critics respect his screenwriting sensibilities and heartfelt characterizations, giving them something to mull over when they ignore his excellent action-direction.
Though he’s not the most consistent working filmmaker, each of his films are unique and memorable; all maintain that distinct del Toro touch throughout, namely his trademark Gothic visuals, lush color schemes, fantastical elements or settings, and tragic but always redeemable characters. It’s hard to decide whether he’s a better screenwriter or director (he’s great at both, to be sure) given how his filmography seesaws from visual masterpiece to dramatic mood-piece almost every other picture.
One of the best combinations of del Toro’s effective, heartfelt screenplays and dark, visually striking directorial efforts is 2004’s Hellboy; Hellboy was near the forefront of the modern comic book-adaptation craze, which first rumbled with Blade (1998, whose sequel del Toro would later direct) but didn’t kick off until X-Men (2000) and especially Spider-Man (2002) succeeded at the international box office. It’s perhaps more notable for being one of the first successful “sidestream” (niche?) comic properties to be developed for the screen, comparable to the likes of Sin City (2005), Watchmen (2009), and Dredd (2012) that followed; separated from the mainstream pressures and fanboy protectionism of more well known titles like DC and Marvel’s biggest properties, the Dark Horse comic’s artistic inspirations and general aesthetic are a near perfect match for del Toro.
Hellboy’s depiction on-screen is arguably del Toro’s finest visual execution of a dark Gothic diegesis. Its colors are rich and stylish, yet diverse enough to prevent visual fatigue or any sort of color grading repetition; its rich black levels, dominant low-key lighting, and Lovecraftian figures make this one of the most distinct, dynamic, and stunning comic book adaptations of this generation. Frequent del Toro collaborator and director of photography, Guillermo Navarro, fleshes out this world with vivid reds, blues, and luscious explosions of orange, adding to the characteristic visual flair of the picture as well as enhancing numerous digital FX.
As for the supernatural monsters themselves, del Toro melds everything from Lovecraftian inspirations to steampunk or dieselpunk props to Nazi occultist fan-fiction. The majority of this diverse production-design is produced in-camera, with impressive sets, wonderful costumes, and meticulous makeup FX, but the plentiful CGI is also well utilized. Del Toro seems to have learned from his action-direction experiences on Blade II (2002), depicting CGI characterizations seamlessly in set-piece transitions, using simple yet effective choreography and versatile editing to shift between digital and practical FX. Perhaps the film’s greatest examples of the latter include the Samael “Hell Hound” costumes our titular hero (Ron Perlman) fights, writhing with tentacles, claws, four eyes, and fearsome animatronic jaws; just as impressive are the layers of makeup and prosthetics that transform lead man Perlman into Hellboy, which look stunning.
In addition to Hellboy’s stellar production design, special FX, and del Toro’s enthusiastic direction, the screenplay is both well paced and boasts multilayered, endearing characters. The opening prologue is perhaps the greatest introduction to a modern superhero or anti-hero this side of Blade, introducing our principle characters with a strong action scene, a wonderful establishment of tone, and snappy editing, all while avoiding the tedious, drawn out origin stories in which so many other lesser adaptations indulge. Henceforth, the film dives into its zany, almost X-Files (1993-2002, 2016)-esque adventure of hybridized science-fiction and supernatural thriller, building an intriguing world filled with history, lore, and likable characters.
Perlman’s Hellboy is, of course, the most well developed of the bunch, and is fleshed out with one of the better performances of the actor’s career. Perlman plays the gruff, tough, no-nonsense action hero well, while delivering his one-liners and retorts to his costars with dry humor and natural timing. Next most impressive is the venerable John Hurt as Hellboy’s father-figure and mentor, who provides plentiful exposition throughout and acts as a natural counterbalance to the younger cast. Rupert Evans is credited with his first starring role in a feature-film as FBI rookie agent John Myers, our fish-out-of-water character and vessel through which we (the audience) may enter the story; rounding out the main cast are Selma Blair as female lead and pyrokinetic love-interest, Liz Sherman, Doug Jones (plus the voice of David Hyde Pierce, also known as Dr. Niles Crane from NBC’s Frasier [1993-2004]) as the telepathic merman sidekick, and Czech actor Karel Roden as the main villain and occultist priest, Grigori Rasputin.
All these characters and their distinct powers, costumes, and personalities scream graphic novel influences, giving this story much heart and human flavor, as opposed to the generic blandness and lame quips of most of Hellboy’s superhero film counterparts. These characters are memorable, with notable strengths and weaknesses; they maintain an appropriate amount of Gothic brooding while avoiding the unrelenting moroseness of Christopher Nolan’s or Zack Snyder’s projects.
That being said, a minor critique of this film concerns the lack of development of the supporting cast; beyond Perlman, Hurt, and Evans, the remainder of the supporting characters get shortchanged a bit in favor of various dream sequences, action set-pieces, and necessary world-building. The film has a sizeable cast for a film this size and much narrative ground to cover, though it covers everything more efficiently than most blockbusters, which often get by on their action direction, lead character, and little else. Still, a few minor characters could stand to go, such as Jeffrey Tambor’s FBI director and various other agents whose characters yield little payoff.
Hellboy has no shortage of style to make up for any small screenwriting or editing missteps, however, given its aforementioned visuals and dynamic, colorful action, and overall graphic novel aesthetic. Even Marco Beltrami’s score is memorable, from the opening title theme to John Hurt’s melancholic character motif, lending further identifiable personality to this story’s audiovisual flavor. Hellboy, again much like a Sin City or a Dredd, feels like it was, in fact, adapted from a graphic novel source, rather than produced as a generic Star Wars (1977) ripoff with a slapped-on superhero licence. The comic adaptation has actual meaning here.
As a result, Guillermo del Toro’s picture is both a die-hard fan’s wet dream as well as an accessible, character-driven, FX-heavy action film that general audiences can enjoy. Its strong characterizations, terrific lead, and prominent, lived-in diegesis are matched by del Toro’s penchant for Lovecraftian beasts and Gothic allure; the Mexican auteur mixes and melds pop culture alternate history from Nazi occultists to Norse mythology to paranormal law enforcement, utilizing all concepts to terrific effect. Hellboy is more than the sum of its parts, which is impressive considering how fined tuned every major aspect of its story and visual design are. Guillermo del Toro and Ron Perlman may not be the first individuals to come to mind when modern audiences think of comic book-movies, but together they represent some of the strongest blockbuster filmmaking, superhero or not, this side of X-Men (2000).
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Guillermo del Toro delivers perhaps the strongest directorial effort of his career, using every special effect trick in the book to depict an unforgettable paranormal, Gothic world, complete with monsters, magic, and big, fucking guns. Ron Perlman proves he can carry a film while supported by a respectable cast of character actors. The film as a whole isn’t ashamed of its comic origins, which, even in 2017, feels against the norm of expanded cinematic universe blandness.
— However… Hellboy covers so much story material it skimps on development for certain prominent supporting characters, which is irritating given its plethora of minor, forgettable roles, including Jeffrey Tambor.
—> Hellboy comes HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
? Ron Perlman: Hey Myers, you’re a talker. What’s a good, strong word for ‘need?’
Rupert Evans: Well, ‘need’s a good, strong word.
Ron Perlman: Eh, too needy.